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Food Stamps Are Not Reaching Eligible Families

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Aired 4/19/09

As the economy weakness, more and more people are eligible for food stamps in San Diego County. But an anti-hunger coalition says intimidation and misinformation are among the reasons many of them won't apply. The county has the lowest food stamp participation rate in the country. KPBS Producer Megan Burke and Reporter Joanne Faryon prepared this report on why local families are going hungry rather than apply for food stamps.

Lani Stacks: "we're not even recognized as human beings."

62-year-old Lani Stacks works part time and collects social security. Depending on her hours, most months, she lives below the federal poverty line. Two years ago she began applying for food stamps.

Stacks: "It's intimidating, it's very discouraging. The fact that I need food stamps I hang in there because I don't have a second income to fall back on."

Stacks is not the only one who feels this way. The San Diego Nutrition Network, a coalition of anti-hunger groups, held public outreach sessions a few months ago to find out why so few people in the county apply for food stamps. A San Diego City Council Committee says 480,000 people countywide are eligible. Just over one quarter of those receive the benefits.

The Nutrition Network identified people who were eligible but didn't apply. They asked why.

Some said the workers were "rude" to them, one respondant told the committee, that as a food stamp applicant, 34e, you are made to feel like "the lowest thing on the totem pole."

One woman says she believed if she applied her son could be drafted into the military.

Through an Access to Information Request, KPBS obtained hundreds of pages of documents, memos and emails from the county's Health and Human Services Agency - the department responsible for administering the program.

Some emails contained the same types of concerns, including one from an outreach worker who said a woman applying for food stamps was asked to list the types of pets she had in case she had dogs she was breeding and selling.

Another woman was asked if she had jewelry worth more than $100.

Jennifer Tracy is the outreach coordinator for the San Diego Hunger Coalition. She says her group and others have been working with the county to try and change the negative stigma attached to the program.

Tracy: "That's one of the things we want to help identify is ways to make this process something that people can go through without losing their dignity, so creating hunger training for the staff so they understand why people are coming in and what's bringing them to this point."

This afternoon, the city of San Diego's Public Safety and Neighborhood Services Committee will hold a hearing to try to find out why the food stamps program reaches so few people.

Councilmember Marti Emerald chairs the committee:

Emerald: "Many of the people who are in need, those families that are hungry that have children who are going to bed hungry at night and showing up at school hungry in the morning live in the city of San Diego and I think its very important to find out exactly what the county is doing to administer that program."

KPBS contacted Health and Human Services for a response but was unable to reach a spokesperson yesterday afternoon.

Today's hearing is open to the public. The head of the county department will be testifying and taking questions from committee members.

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