Programs help many put food on the table

2012-11-11T17:30:00Z 2012-11-12T11:32:56Z Programs help many put food on the tableBy JON ERICSON, Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier

DES MOINES --- The state's efforts to help feed underprivileged families is just a piece in the puzzle.

Roger Munns, a spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services, likes to quote his former boss Kevin Concannon.

"You won't solve all the problems, but it will make the other problems easier to solve if the person who has a problem is not hungry," Munns said.

Iowa may have fared better than most states through the recession, but it wasn't completely isolated. Evidence of the recession is easily visibly by looking at the trends in Iowa's food assistance program.

The number of food stamp recipients has been increasing over the past five years, climbing 43 percent in 2009 and 36 percent in 2010, while the past two years the rate of increase has declined to 10.5 percent in 2011 and 7.7 percent in 2012. Officials with the Iowa Department of Human Services expect the number will continue to creep up for another 18 months, until the summer of 2014.

In Iowa food assistance is a pure entitlement program. There are no lifetime limits, no cutoff date for when a person has to get off the program. In contrast, welfare and unemployment have cutoff dates.

More than half of those who receive food assistance apply for it online. To qualify, the family household income cannot be more than 160 percent of the poverty level. For a family of three, that means the gross household income cannot exceed $24,000.

"To be eligible to receive food assistance you have to be pretty darn unresourced," Munns said. "It's difficult to make ends meet on that. It makes it kind of startling that we have so many people eligible, but it is in fact true."

An average of 402,000 Iowans, or 13 percent of the state's population, received food assistance in a given month last year. The average recipient is a 25-year-old single mother and the vast majority also receive Medicaid or Family Assistance Program benefits.

The benefits are based on a sliding scale, so the closer the recipient's income gets to the income limit, what he or she receives is reduced.

All food assistance these days is distributed through Electronic Balance Transfer cards. It cannot be spent on hot foods, like pizza at a gas station, nor can users get cash back on transactions. The average Iowa recipient received $129.88 in monthly benefits in 2011.

Munns breaks it down to the average benefit being about $1.35 per meal.

Food stamp and food assistance programs receive funding through the United States Department of Agriculture. Those programs are why Congress failed to pass a new farm bill this year. The previous one expired Sept. 30.

This summer the U.S. Senate approved a farm bill that cut food stamps by $4.5 billion over 10 years. The federal government spent $78 billion on the program in 2011.

A bill passed by the House agriculture committee would have cut food stamps another $12 billion, but has never been voted on by the full House. That's because of a battle between deficit hawks who demand steeper cuts and farm-state legislators who have pleaded to get a bill done.

Copyright 2015 Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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