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The U.S. Agriculture Department operates two programs that provide strong defenses against hunger and malnutrition in America: the Food Stamp program and the Nutritional Supplement and Education Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

Ironically, the food stamp program, charged with meeting the basic nutritional needs of low-income households, is being blamed for what one anti-hunger advocate calls a "run" on emergency food pantries and soup kitchens.Officially, 210,000 Utahns live in poverty. Staff at Crossroads Urban Center, Utah's biggest food pantry, call that an underestimation. Less than half that number receive food stamps.

In October, the most recent month figures were available, 32,148 Utah households (90,477 individuals) received food stamps. That's a jump from 27,626 (81,499 individuals) in October of 1986. With a few slight dips, the figures have climbed steadily in recent years.

But the state has not increased the number of workers to deal with the rising caseloads, and "the (public assistance) system is stressed really badly," said Steve Johnson, director of Utahns Against Hunger. Statewide, except in a very few offices, it's taking the full 30 days allowed by federal regulations to get food stamps and the full 45 to get welfare grants, Johnson said.

"When they go to apply for help, most people are in serious trouble. They wait until the very last minute, then find it's going to be a month," he said. "They're desperate and the people on the other side of the desk want to help and all they can do is make a referral to a food pantry."

"I thought we could just go down and say help and they'd help us," Regina, a 36-year-old, recently divorced woman who lives with her sister, said. "We both work, but we only make a little bit and the rent just got raised."

Regina had to wait more than 30 days - her paperwork was lost and she had to start over.

Advocates of those on low incomes met twice recently with Department of Social Services officials to discuss processing delays and lost paperwork. Both sides agree there's a problem, partly created by overworked staff and partly by a recent, somewhat rocky conversion to a new computer system. Norman G. Angus, Social Services director, expects things to improve when the computer is on line.

But the staffing shortage will be more difficult to solve because the Legislature would have to allocate more money for increased staff.

Even worse than the logistics of getting public assistance, according to Crossroads' Sandy Fink, is the stigma. Applying for public assistance is admitting failure.

"We haven't found a cure for hunger," Fink said, "and Utah carries some real bad baggage. `We should be able to care for ourselves,' we think. `If I'm hungry, it's because I'm bad.' So going to a welfare office is admitting that you're bad."

Not everyone on welfare receives food stamps and not everyone receiving them is on welfare. The "working poor" may qualify, as well as senior citizens on a low fixed income, the homeless and others.

But food stamps don't guarantee that basic nutrition requirements will be met or they will stretch for an entire month. A breakdown of the maximum grant (many families receive reduced food stamp grants) based on family size shows a single-person household has roughly $1 to spend on each meal; it drops as low as 75 cents per member in larger households. Thousands of Utahns who receive reduced grants try to feed themselves on as little as 42 cents each per meal. In 1987, nationally, the average was 49 cents a meal.

"Food stamps were never intended to take care of all a person's food needs," said Cathy Hoskins, operations director for Community Action Program pantries in Salt Lake County. "It's just not enough."

There are expedited and regular food stamps. Households with less than $150 gross income and $100 in liquid assets must receive stamps within five days after application. Destitute migrant and seasonal farm workers, the homeless and households whose combined assets are less than the cost of rent and utilities also qualify for expedited service, according to Clyde Terry, program specialist in the Assistance Payments Administration.

All others must receive their stamps within 30 days of application, assuming they can meet stringent income requirements, as well as other rules. The APA has a series of calculations that consider citizenship, specific exemptions, earned income disregards, expenses and more.

The stamps can be used for edible items. They cannot be used to buy paper products, pet foods, alcohol or tobacco.

Because the eligibility formula is complicated, Terry said delays are not unreasonable. "The process takes time," he said. "I don't know if system delays cause an increase in food pantry use. But that comes up whenever there's a lack of food. Advocates always raise delays as a cause and we can't solve that problem."

In the WIC program, delays are not an issue. Katherine Pearson, Salt Lake County office manager, said the obstacle is outreach - getting information about the program to the public and countering misconceptions.

WIC served 14,000 clients in Salt Lake County last year at its main office, 3891 S. West Temple, and at five satellite clinics. But Pearson said many more people who qualify never apply because they don't know about the program.

The nationwide program, administered on a county level, gives clients vouchers redeemable at most local supermarkets or neighborhood groceries for specific high-iron, low-sugar foodstuffs, like infants' formula, iron-fortified cereals, fruit and vegetable juices, milk, cheese, dry beans and peas, eggs and peanut butter. About $4 million worth of vouchers were distributed by the Salt Lake County WIC offices last year.

Although WIC provides food for women and children who meet its qualifying criteria, it differs from programs that feed the desperately needy.

"WIC is a preventive health program, not a food assistance program," said Pearson, a registered nurse. "It's a nutritional supplement and education program for women, infants and children at risk of poor nutrition because of low income."

WIC requires only that applicants are local residents, fall under a relatively liberal income cap and be deemed at risk of poor nutrition. Nearly 40 WIC offices, at least one in each county, operate throughout Utah.

Pregnant women and those who have given birth within the past six months - or if nursing an infant, within the past year - can apply for WIC vouchers. Parents can also apply on behalf of children up to 5 years of age.

"Applicants don't have to prove a permanent address," Pearson said. "And the income limit is 185 percent of the federal poverty guideline. For example, a family of four could earn up to $1,796 per month."

A common misconception is that anyone who doesn't qualify for other government programs can't qualify for WIC. The message 52 WIC employees in Salt Lake County are spreading is that people can still qualify for WIC vouchers even if they don't qualify for other assistance. WIC clients are reassessed every six months. The WIC main office can be reached at 264-2251.

Next: Emergency food pantries.