1 in 6 Hamilton County residents gets food stamps

1 in 6 Hamilton County residents gets food stamps

February 21st, 2011 by Yolanda Putman in News

Staff photo by Jenna Walker/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Julie Kayser rubs her eyes in frustration while herson Zane Kayser, holding his son Bryson Kayser, asks for money in her home in Chattanooga, Tenn. Julie receives disability payments for her lupus and various other ailments alongside $41 a month in food stamps.

At 48, Julie Kayser expected to be firmly settled in her career and saving for retirement.

Instead, the former fast-food manager depends on a disability check and is among one in six people in Hamilton County using food stamps to make ends meet.

"I can tell you it's bad," she said. "We have to choose between buying food and paying the bills."

Kayser is among a record-breaking number of food stamp recipients in the state and across the country. The number of food stamp recipients in Hamilton County has increased nearly 50 percent since the recession hit in 2007, growing from 38,897 recipients in 2007 to 57,655 this year.

Across the state, the number of food stamp recipients has grown by about 68 percent since 2007. About one in five people in the state receives food stamps while that number is one in seven nationally, statistics show.

Last year, all 50 states showed an increase in the number of food stamp recipients. Idaho led the way with an increase of more than 28 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program.

The number of recipients in Tennessee was up by less than 7 percent, one of the nation's smallest increases. Georgia, meanwhile, had a 15 percent rise in the number of residents participating in the food stamp program, more than 1.7 million in all.

Making every penny count

FOOD STAMP RECIPIENTS

Hamilton County

Year / People / Amount

2007 / 38,897 / $3.8 million

2008 / 40,043 / $4.15 million

2009 / 45,228 / $5.3 million

2010 / 54,397 / $7.55 million

2011 / 57,655 / $7.9 million

Tennessee

Year / People / Amount

January 2007 / 870,169 / $84.1 million

January 2011 / 1.27 million / $169.4 million

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services

Georgia

November 2009: 1.5 million

November 2010: 1.7 million

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture

Food stamp recipients receive their allotment at the first of each month and Charles Morton, owner of Buehler's Market in Chattanooga, said he calls in more workers during the first two weeks of each month to accommodate those shoppers.

"That's when they load the [food stamp] cards up," he said. "If they spread it out, it would make it a lot easier on me."

Sixty percent of his business is from food stamp recipients who shop during the first two weeks of the month, Morton said.

People used to be embarrassed about getting food stamps, but not so much anymore, Kayser said.

"You can put your pride out there or your belly," she said. "It's better than being hungry."

For about a year until December 2010, Kayser lived with her 31-year-old daughter and was allocated $41 a month in food stamps. Since then, she has moved into her own apartment and hopes for an increase in benefits.

Kayser uses her food stamps and a $681 monthly disability check to help feed her formerly homeless boyfriend and her 20-year-old son, who recently lost his job and moved into her two-bedroom apartment.

Kayser, diagnosed with lupus and depression, has received disability payments for the past 10 years, although she did some part-time work until 2007.

"I worked until I absolutely couldn't work any longer," she said. "Between my back hurting so bad and the lupus, I was having trouble breathing. I was tired. I couldn't walk from one room to the other without having to sit down and catch my breath."

She said she tries to make every penny count by avoiding more expensive frozen dinners and shopping at discount stores such as Sav-A-Lot and United Grocery Outlet.

"Fresh vegetables there aren't as pretty as the other groceries, but they taste just as good," she said. "I fed eight people last night and I probably spent $12. You can't do much better than that."

She sometimes gets help making ends meet from her two adult daughters. Her younger daughter, age 28, sometimes invites her to dinner. At other times, her food stamps make the difference in her family eating or going hungry, she said.

"We've lived on flour and water for weeks at a time," she said.

Trend mirrors jobs

WHERE TO APPLY

Tennessee Department of Human Services, 311 E. M.L. King Blvd., Suite 301, Chattanooga. Monthly income limits to receive food stamps are:

Family of 1: $1,174

Family of 2: $1,579

Family of 3: $1,984

Family of 4: $2,389

Family of 5: $2,794

Family of 6: $3,200

Source: Tennessee Department of Human Services

Historically, when the economy has gone south, the food stamp rolls have increased, said Paul Lefkowitz, director of Families First with the Tennessee Department of Human Services.

"We've seen that since the recession began," he said. "We've seen significant increases in eligible families receiving food stamps."

It is not uncommon for the food stamp caseload to mirror the unemployment rate, when unemployment goes up or down, Lefkowitz said.

The state's unemployment rate has held steady at 9.4 percent for the past four months, said Jeff Hentschel, communications director with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development. That's down from the 10.7 percent recorded in January 2010, but it's still far from the 5 percent unemployment rate that was considered normal before the recession started in December 2007, Hentschel said.

And there's room for the number of food stamp recipients in Tennessee to increase, said Richard Dobbs, Tennessee's director of policy for its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

"I look at the census data to see how many people are living in poverty compared to how many are in the program," Dobbs said. "We're serving 80 to 85 percent of those who are eligible, so there is still room for growth."

Like the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Facebook and follow us on Twitter for updates all day long.