The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its annual Household Food Security Report earlier this month. It shows 14 percent of Americans rely on the federal government food stamps program. In Florida, that’s nearly one out of every eight residents.
USDA Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Kincannon says everywhere he goes he meets people struggling in the economy. He recently chatted with a woman working at a newsstand in a hotel where he was attending a conference.
“She mentioned that she worked 20 hours a week and would really like to work more hours a week but the hotel could not afford to hire for her for those additional hours. Then she mentioned, ‘I really depend on the food stamp program’ and she really didn’t know who I was at the time,” he said.
Kincannon says the food safety net is working.
In Southwest Florida, many providers are reaching out to let struggling families know help is available. Sarah Owen is director of Community Cooperative Ministries Incorporated (CCMI), which provides about 20,000 meals a month in Lee County. It’s adopted new strategies for serving families, many of whom are dealing with food insecurity for the first time. Owen says its soup kitchens have been reinvented as “community cafes.”
“So, now we’re open from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. rather than just being open during the lunch hours and that was directly in relation to our seeing a new group of new hungry that needed a much wider variety of hours and services to help them get back on their feet,” she said.
CCMI’s Everyday Café in Cape Coral is bustling at 10:30 in the morning. Painted a cheerful yellow with café style tables and chairs, tasteful artwork on the walls and the day’s menu choices chalked neatly on a blackboard it could be any restaurant. Volunteers take orders and serve. Johnni Trinidad is here with her 3-year-old daughter Caroleena having breakfast. She just relocated to Cape Coral with hopes of a new job and says money is tight.
“My last paycheck from my previous job went to a down payment security deposit for the apartment, electric and water so I have all that. So, I just came here to fill in the gap with food and that sort of thing,” she said.
Anyone who needs a meal is free to come to the Everyday Café – no questions asked. But, CCMI also provides help to people who don’t have gas money or can’t pay their utility bills.
Meet Brian Fearn -- he’s underemployed in Cape Coral. He lives in a spacious home with his wife and three kids. It was affordable during the building boom when he worked fulltime selling paint. But, that job is gone and this summer the family couldn’t afford to pay their electric bill and also buy food. That brought Brian to CCMI.
“Because my bill was a little over $600 and with me only working a few hours in a night at UPS and me having the only income for a while in the house it’s hard to make ends meet,” he said.
CCMI helped the family pay the electric bill and got them enrolled in the food stamp program. Now things are improving. Brian’s wife landed a teaching position and he’s picking up jobs as a handyman. Their food stamp assistance ends in December. Families on average receive nutrition help for ten months.
The good news is the latest household food security numbers from the USDA showed no increase from the year before. USDA Undersecretary Kevin Kincannon says he hopes Congress keeps funding the program at least the present level.
“The message we’ve tried to convey clearly to Congress is that we are being good stewards of the American taxpayer dollars and these programs are operating as they should in that they’re very responsive to what’s going on in the economy,” he said.
The budget appropriation for the USDA’s food stamp program in 2012 is $71 billion, a 9 percent increase from the year before. Critics say it’s too large given the budget deficit.
Monday, 19 September 2011 13:16
Food Safety Net is WorkingWritten by Valerie Alker