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Demand for food stamps surges

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Roughly one in 10 Americans is now receiving federal food stamp benefits, an all-time high that's likely to increase as the economy worsens and more people are out of work.

The national numbers are amplified in West Virginia, where the most recent federal figures show more than 281,000 residents — nearly one-sixth of the state's population — are receiving monthly benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the new name for the food stamp program.

Nationally, more than 31.5 million people received food stamp benefits in September, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That's the highest total recorded, surpassing the old record of 27.4 million in 1994.

"Particularly at times when there's an economic downturn, we really try to make sure people who need our help know about our programs and have access to them," said Kate Houston, deputy undersecretary for the federal Food and Nutrition Service.

Even people receiving food stamps have recently been turning to food banks and soup kitchens to keep from going hungry, said Teresa Burdette, vice president of the Direct Action Welfare Group in Charleston.

"It's very difficult for people right now," Burdette said. "The benefit needs to be expanded — either that or the government has to look at the price of food."

Federal figures match up with the anecdotal evidence. Only one state — Alaska — has seen food stamp benefits decline in the year between September 2007 and September 2008.

As the number of recipients climbs, so does the expense. Nationally, the average monthly benefit is about $101. Between July and October in West Virginia, the average monthly benefit rose from $96 to $108, according to the state Department of Health and Human Resources.

The federal government, which supplies 100 percent of the funding for benefits and splits the cost of administration and nutrition education with the states, spent more than $34.6 billion on food stamp benefits in the last fiscal year, an increase from $30.3 billion the year before.

Spurring the rise in benefits, along with the economy, were hurricanes Gustav and Ike, and flooding in the Midwest.

"One of the great things about SNAP is its flexibility," Houston said. "It expands and contracts depending on the level of need in the country."

West Virginia's 4 percent food stamp growth since September 2007 is less than other states in the region, with Maryland recording a 16 percent increase, Virginia a 9 percent rise and Kentucky a 7 percent climb.

The increases aren't all part of long-term trends, either. While West Virginia's food stamp participation has steadily grown since 2003, other states — including Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, and Tennessee — saw declines earlier this decade, only to have the numbers shoot back up in the last year or so.

Historically, food stamp use has increased during recessions and economic downturns. Previous spikes have occurred in the mid-1970s, the early 1980s and the early 1990s.