Increasingly expensive meats and milk, fruits and vegetables are the things Shannon Adams can buy for her family thanks to the federal government’s food assistance program — previously referred to as food stamps.
The 30-year-old Tiffin mother of two makes minimum wage working at a Coralville hotel, and even with her husband’s income, they struggle to cover the costs of day care, car insurance, gas, clothes, rent and, of course, food.
“I couldn’t do on my own,” Adams said Monday after stopping by the Crisis Center of Johnson County to pick up snacks and side dishes — breads, crackers and fruit bars — to supplement the more expensive items she buys through the government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Making minimum wage with the kids, we’ll take help where we can get it,” she said.
A growing number of low-income Iowans, like the Adams family, are taking the government up on its offer of food aid, according to the Iowa Department of Human Services. The number of Iowans receiving federal food assistance — now known as SNAP benefits issued via electronic cards — has increased nearly 7 percent in the last year, climbing from 386,153 in June 2011 to 412,889 in June 2012.
The number of Iowans receiving SNAP benefits has jumped 60 percent in the last five years. The local rise mirrors a national increase in SNAP participation, with more than 46.1 million people participating in April compared with 44.6 million one year earlier. Of the current participants nationwide, 12,000 have doctorate degrees and 300,000 have masters degrees, according to Kevin Concannon, former Iowa DHS director who now is undersecretary of agriculture for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Officials with the Iowa DHS, which administers the federal food assistance program statewide, attributed the increase to the sluggish economy, unemployment and a recent change in eligibility requirements qualifying more low-income residents for federal aid.
Iowa households with combined incomes of less than 160 percent of federal poverty levels now are eligible for government food assistance. Household incomes had to be less than 130 percent of the poverty level before 2010.
“The idea was to expand benefits to the near poor,” said Roger Munns, spokesman for the Iowa Department of Human Services. “The (increase in recipients) didn’t happen all at once because some people didn’t know about it. But the numbers have been increasing and going up.”
The rise in demand for food aid has added to the case load of DHS workers charged with doling out federal benefits, Munns said. The average DHS staffer in Iowa is managing 794 cases at any one time, according to DHS statistics.
The rise in food assistance requests also has meant longer wait times for some applicants, according to Brian Meier, income maintenance administrator for the DHS’ Cedar Rapids service area. The DHS is required to issue benefits to qualifying applicants within 30 days of a request — within seven days if it’s an emergency. The statewide average wait time for nonemergent requests stands at about 16 days, up from 11 1/2 days in 2010, according to Meier.
The average wait time in Johnson County is about 18 days, up from about 13 1/2 in 2010, and the average processing time in Linn County is about 14 days, up from just over 13 days two years ago.
In response to the swelling case loads and tightening budgets, Iowa’s DHS recently changed the way it processes cases, repositioning staff and reassigning duties, Meier said. For example, where one person would have handled a case start to finish before, now several people will manage a case — one person will take the initial request, for example, while another processes a renewal.
“Instead of waiting for one worker to get back to you, you get who is available at that time,” he said. “It’s more efficient.”
The department also is integrating even more efficiencies — mostly via electronic case management options — to handle the seemingly constant flow of requests.
“Our electronic processing has been a godsend to us,” said Shelly Wurzer-Kellogg, income maintenance supervisor in the Linn County service area. “We could not do what we are doing if we were still managing case files.”
Wurzer-Kellogg said that, on top of the weak economy and new eligibility guidelines, she thinks some of the rise in requests for food assistance has to do with the simplified application process. People used to have to come into an office for a face-to-face interview. Now all of that can be done over the phone.
“It’s fair to say that the staff is working pretty hard,” Wurzer-Kellogg said. “But are we to the point where things are unmanageable? No because we have made so many changes.”
Stresses on the system and the climbing number of aid recipients have sparked political debate nationwide. The Senate’s version of the farm bill moving through Congress trimmed $400 million from the $80 billion allocation for food assistance, and the House is looking at deeper cuts. A handful of states that manage the food program also have tried passing laws limiting what people can buy with food stamps.
Those proposals, which so far have failed in states like Illinois, Oregon, California and Vermont, aim to keep recipients from buying “junk food” — like soda and candy — with their government issued cards.
Sarah Benson Witry, food bank and emergency assistance director for the Crisis Center in Iowa City, said she thinks that goes too far.
Many of the people who visit food banks also take federal food assistance — 44 percent of the 4,634 households who received food from the Crisis Center in the last year also received government food aid. And, Witry said, one adjunct goal of providing food is to return clients their dignity.
“People who receive benefits often are treated in an undignified manner,” Witry said. “To be able to make their own food choices provides them with a sense of dignity. It lets them feel human again.”