Food Stamps Usage On the Rise

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Food stamp usage is on the rise. In the Bronx for instance, more than 400,000 people use food stamps. That’s close to 30 percent of the borough’s entire population. According to the city, since 2007 usage has increased 26 percent in the Bronx. WNYC’s Cindy Rodriguez visited a non-profit and a supermarket in the borough to see just who's applying for the federally funded food assistance program.

Heather Hargraves is the social services coordinator at Part of the Solution - a non-profit in the Bronx that provides some of the poorest New Yorkers, with everything from showers to hot meals to food stamps.

"I actually have an appointment at 7 o‘clock tonight.The address is 2763 and your appointment is with Fabio.

Typically, people apply for food stamps at a local welfare office, but a few years ago the city started letting certain non-profits submit applications on behalf of the people they serve:

"I think people feel a lot more stigmatized applying at a food stamp center because you know they are going to a welfare office and that’s associated with negative connotations," Hargraves says.

Part of the Solution is located on Webster Avenue in the Bronx. According to census figures, the poverty rate in the surrounding area is nearly 40 percent. Hargraves says one of the most frustrating parts of her job is how often people get their benefits cut off because of administrative errors and other glitches.

"John, your card, there’s no food stamps on your card but your card is working."

John Torruella is 53 years old. "I’m getting tired of it. You get frustrated. You get frustrated and you may as well forget about it," he says.

He’s single, homeless, and qualifies for $200 a month in food stamps. Hargraves must now figure out why his benefits have stopped:

"Yeah, you should have gotten your benefits. So I’m going to contact the center and see why you haven’t. Ok?" she tells him.

Torruella says he’s out of food but he’ll use the soup kitchen downstairs. Plus, the food pantry is giving out beef today.

Up a narrow wooden stairwell sit more offices. In the back, caseworker Fabio Martinez is waiting for his 3 o‘clock appointment to show up.

"I’m calling because you have a food stamps appointment for today..."

Martinez says he’s been signing people up for food stamps for about two years.

"At first, it started off just normal. Single parent coming in with two children and so on, but after about five or six months after that when I started late August or September, that’s when I started seeing the families with mortgages, the husband and the wife that lost a job and almost in foreclosure and so on," Martinez says.

Martinez’s client ends up canceling on him, and while he waits for the next appointment he demonstrates a food stamp calculator that estimates the amount of benefits a mother of two earning $2,000 a month would receive.

"It’s not 100 percent accurate but it does work," he says.

In this hypothetical example, the single mom is also paying $500 a month in child care and $1,000 a month in rent. Both can be deducted from her monthly income.

"She lives in the five boroughs, let me just say she’s not paying electricity for the sake of argument, and she would get $376," Martinez calculates.

Martinez says people are always surprised by the amount of benefits they could potentially qualify for.

"They used to say, 'I hope I’m not coming here just to get $10 or $14 because I don’t want to waste my time' and, you know, you understand," he says.

While Martinez is seeing people at the beginning of the food stamp process, Pioneer Supermarket down the street is seeing them at the end -- once they’re ready to spend their benefits.

Bianel Rodriguez is a cashier at Pioneer. "Seventy-five to 80 percent of the people who come here most of the time use food stamps," she says.

Rodriguez says food stamps can be used on all cold food products -- no hot foods, no detergents, shampoo, beer, or cigarettes. And she says it’s good for business, "especially the first two weeks of the month and the holidays."

The store is bustling, and outside in the parking lot Joycelyn Sarita and her mother were loading $160 worth of groceries into their car. Sarita says she paid for everything using food stamps. She’s been on the program since August. It was the first time she ever applied for the benefit. "I lost my job and I had to go for food stamps because I couldn’t afford it," she says. "I did hesitate, but you have to do what you have to do if you want to eat."

Sarita says she was a medical assistant at a gynecologist’s office but they ended up closing down the medical practice. She says finding a new job has been very hard.

Milagros Arroyo also recently lost her job in the garment district. She just started receiving food stamps this month. "I got laid off and I couldn’t feed my kids and I was having a hard time paying the rent," she says.

Arroyo has two kids and is loading them in her van. Today, with the help of food stamps, she’s purchased several bags of groceries including cupcakes for her daughter’s birthday party at school. Arroyo says she’s not embarrassed about using food stamps. "Maybe some women might feel embarrassed. I didn’t because I have been working my entire life," she says. "I’m 41 years old and I feel that if I paid for taxes, I’m just in a way getting some of my hard-earned tax money back. Before I was working and helping other families get food stamps, and now it's my turn to get something back from what I contributed."

And for many of these Bronx residents, the stigma of being on food stamps is quickly fading.

For more on this story, visit the WNYC News Blog.