California gets a bigger food stamp benefit

You already know the state sales tax went up today in California. Here's something else that went up today - food stamp benefits. State officials say low-income Californians enrolled in food stamp programs will immediately see those extra benefits. KPCC's Julie Small reports.

Julie Small: For as many as 2-and-a-haf-million Californians, this could be the best news they've heard in a long time.

John Wagner: Food stamp recipients received a 13.6% increase in their food stamp benefits.

Small: John Wagner directs the California Department of Social Services. He says money from the federal stimulus package will boost a household's food stamp benefit from $300 to $340 a month. That might not sound like much, but it can mean an extra bag of groceries a month – and that's worth a lot to an increasing number of Californians.

Jessica Bartholow: I'm in Irvine, California. I'm out of a job for a long time and I'm losing unemployment benefits soon. I was wondering where I could go to get food stamps and food help. I have three little kids in need of assistance.

Small: That's Jessica Bartholow of the California Association of Food Banks, reading an e-mail she received. She says her inbox is deluged daily with similar cries for help.

Bartholow: California food banks have seen a dramatic, sudden, unprecedented increase in requests for assistance – anywhere from 30% to 50% more than last year. Professionals in our field say they have never seen an increase as great as the one we are seeing this year.

Small: Job losses, foreclosures, and a crummy economy are forcing more people to ask for help for the first time.

Bartholow: They're embarrassed. They're scared. They don't know where to turn. They're not sure how to apply for assistance and what questions will be asked. So a lot of the work we're doing is navigating a new system for them at a time that's very scary.

Small: County governments and food banks help enroll people in the food stamp program. It can take as little as three days to get the benefit, but state officials estimate as many as 2 million low-income Californians who'd qualify for food stamps don't apply.

State officials say those people don't realize they might be eligible – or feel overwhelmed by the application process. John Wagner with Social Services says the state's launched an initiative to get those people to apply for food stamps.

Wagner: No Californian should face hunger. We encourage all Californians who think they might be eligible to apply for food benefits to do so.

Small: Social Services Director John Wagner says doing so will get easier. California will soon streamline the application process. That will mean some elderly and disabled applicants won't have to meet face to face to apply for the benefit – and the state will also forego checks on the assets of some food stamp applicants. Those changes take effect in July.

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