When household budgets are tight, individuals and families may find themselves short on food. Sometimes filling hungry bellies may seem more important than paying attention to good nutrition. But the federal Food Stamp Program, administered by the United States Department of Agriculture, aims to make it possible to do both.
In March of this year, 177,966 Mainers participated in the program, receiving a total of $16,848,406 in food purchasing power that month. That’ s up from 164,841 people provided with $14,473,106 in March of last year.
Nationwide, an estimated 26.2 million Americans will receive food stamp benefits each month of this year. The 2008 federal budget for the Food Stamp Program is $38.7 billion, an increase of $1.7 billion over last year.
It takes about 400 full-time state employees to administer the program in Maine in combination with TANF — Temporary Assistance for Needy Families — and MaineCare, the state’ s Medicaid health insurance program for low-income and disabled people.
Food stamp dollars — now in the form of a rechargeable debit card — may be spent on virtually any food item, including dietary staples such as produce, bread, meat and milk as well as soda, chips, candy and other “junk food,” at all major grocery chains, many convenience stores and other stores that accept them. The funds cannot be used for paper products, cleaning supplies, alcohol or tobacco products.
Participants receive regular printed information from the state Department of Health and Human Services to help them select healthful foods and live physically active lives. They have access to educational programs to help them stretch their food stamp dollars further.
To receive food stamps, individuals must meet two income guidelines. The first is gross income, which includes all earned wages and other income sources. Subtracting certain allowable expenses, including housing costs, child care, child support payments and certain medical expenses, results in the net income figure.
The income eligibility guidelines are set by the federal government and are reviewed each year. Allowable income is higher in Alaska and Hawaii but is otherwise the same in every state.
For the current year, individuals applying for food stamps may have no more than $1,107 a month in gross income and no more than $850 a month net income. Couples may have a combined total of $1,484 gross income and $1,181 net income a month. A family of six may have $2,992 a month in gross income and $2,301 in net income.
The program also asks applicants to list their assets, including bank accounts and financial investments as well as personal property such as cars, trucks, boats, snow machines and vacation property. Assets may affect eligibility or the dollar amount of assistance received.
Food stamp eligibility is reviewed annually for senior citizens and the disabled, and every three months for others.
How much food, to how many?
It would be hard to feed a family, or an individual, on the amount of assistance provided through the food stamp program. The most an individual person may receive is $162 a month. Some individuals qualify for only $10 a month. For a couple, the upper limit is $298. A family of six can get $772.
“It is intended to be a supplement to your income, not intended to meet 100 percent of the need,” said Donna Greenlaw, program administrator for the state’ s Office of Integrated Access in Bangor. With the price of food going up steadily, she said, a food stamp allowance that used to cover a family’ s food needs for three weeks now may last for only two weeks.
The Bangor office, which services Penobscot and Piscataquis counties, employs about 55 full-time staff to administer the three programs. In March of this year, the office provided food stamps to 22,670 individuals from Penobscot County at a cost of $2,199,286 and to 3,050 individuals from Piscataquis County at a cost of $276,039.
Statewide, a total of 83,446 food stamp cases were funded in January of this year and 89,642 cases were funded in April. Participation is rising because of a number of factors, Greenlaw said, including the slowing economy, the growing number of elderly and disabled people in Maine, and a streamlined application process that makes it easier to apply for the program.
The federal government awards states that have high participation rates. Maine has received $2.5 million in awards over the past four years, which has been spent on upgrading the program’ s computer technology.
Information on the federal Food Stamp Program is available at www.fns.usda.gov/fsp.
Part Four on housing assistance will appear Monday, Aug. 4.