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Many Americans Reluctant to Accept Food Stamps

FARAI CHIDEYA: That was Derek Felton, community organizing coordinator for the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Thousands of advocates like Derek are working hard to bring aid to America's hungry. But according to a study by the Brookings Institution last year, only about half of those eligible for food stamps, who live in big cities, actually enroll.

To understand why and what this means for emergency food banks, we're joined in our Chicago bureau by Ertharin Cousin, Chief Operating Officer of America Second Harvest. That's the nation's food bank network; and Mary Summers, senior fellow with the University of Pennsylvania's Fox Leadership Program. Welcome to the both of you.

And Mary, let's start with you. You've been connecting college students with Derek's organization in Philadelphia. He mentioned that hunger has no shame, and yet so many people eligible for food stamps just don't get them. Why do you think little more than half of those eligible actually seek out food stamps?

Ms. MARY SUMMERS (Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania): Well, first of all, applying is not an easy thing to do. When I first stared working with the Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, my goal was to have college student's work with them to go out into the community and screen people, see if they're eligible for food stamps; and if they are, give them an estimate of their benefit level. And the Coalition and I thought that if you did that that would encourage people to apply.

But what we found is that only about 43 percent of the people whom we had screened, told they were eligible and offered application assistance actually managed to complete the application process, and that we had to tell people if you want to apply you really need to take eleven documents with you to the county assistant's office where you apply, because they want documentation of--if you don't have a job they want documentation from your last employer that you no longer have a job.

They want your utility bill, your rent [unintelligible]. And they also ask for documentation that they don't necessarily--some caseworkers ask for documentation that they don't necessarily have to have. But for instance, some will say I want your social security cards on all your kids, your birth certificates, and it's difficult for people to collect this many documents. They often have to wait for several hours, to see a caseworker to apply. And then they may be told, oh, because you don't have this document, you have to come back

CHIDEYA: So you're basically saying that there is a ton of bureaucracy. Ertharin, you're with America's Second Harvest. The reluctance to use food stamps has put emergency food banks on total alert. What is happening to emergency food banks?

Ms. COUSIN: They are becoming a chronic source of food for so many Americans who are food insecure. What we're finding is what was once a system that saw a very diverse population, we are now seeing the same people once, twice, sometimes three times a month. Unfortunately, even those who are receiving food stamps are telling us that the benefits in most states are so low that they don't last three weeks, and they're still finding themselves in pantries and at soup kitchens, in order to meet the needs for the entire month for themselves and their families.

CHIDEYA: What about the black community specifically? Your study found that up to 30 percent of African-Americans receive emergency food aid at some point. That is staggering.

Ms. COUSIN: It is staggering, but it also reflects the unemployment levels that have recently been demonstrated for the African-American community, that they're directly in line with what we're seeing in our food banks. They relate totally to the number of people who are receiving minimum wage. The minimum wage alone makes a person eligible for, in most cases, about $200 a month in food stamps.

And we have so many of our young people who are not finishing school, who find themselves in minimum wage jobs or without jobs. They're eligible for food stamps. Even if they're receiving the food stamps, they're not going far enough. If they're not receiving food stamps, they find themselves in a soup kitchen or a pantry.

CHIDEYA: Mary, there has been, Derek mentioned an EBT card, which is a debit card. Do things like that, alternate ways of delivering food aid make any difference in terms of the stigma?

Ms. MARY SUMMERS (Senior Fellow, University of Pennsylvania's Fox Leadership Program): Yes, I think they do, and I do want to emphasize--I mean, while it is true that it can be hard to apply for food stamps, once you get them, they can be a terrific benefit. My students screen people who find themselves--you don't get food stamps anymore. You get an EBT card, which you can use in the grocery store just like a credit card. And you can be eligible depending on you income and the number of people in your household.

The average benefit we find people getting is about $139, $140 a month. Some families, we can tell them, you're eligible for $400 a month in food stamps, which, you know, obviously makes a tremendous difference in terms of people having access to fresh food and vegetables and healthy foods. And with all the concern about the obesity epidemic these days, the food stamps, while the benefit is not enough, it can definitely make a big difference in terms of making healthy food accessible to people.

CHIDEYA: Ertharin, we're just about out of time, but Derek made a plea for people to sign up. What would you like to say to people who need food aid?

Ms. COUSIN: We're seeing that, yes food pantries are available in your community, but that's not the answer. The answer is, please, sign up for food stamps. Get the benefits that you're eligible for. Ensure that you have the resources to provide the food, the healthy food, for yourself, for your family. Make sure that you're adamant that this is your right. We live in a society where having food is a right, having healthy food is a right, and people should not let their pride get in the way of ensuring that they have the food that they need to feed themselves and their children.

CHIDEYA: All right. Ertharin Cousin, chief operating office of America's Second Harvest. Mary Summers with the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you both.

Ms. SUMMERS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.