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October 20, 2011

Food stamp requests soar in area counties

Staff Report

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COOPERSTOWN -- The number of people getting food stamps has risen sharply throughout New York in recent years, straining local counties running the program, officials told The Daily Star on Wednesday.

The recession, high unemployment and the elevated cost of food, health care and energy are all factors in a jump in food stamp recipients in Otsego, Delaware, Schoharie and Chenango counties, officials said.

In Otsego County, 5,743 people now receive food stamps -- up from 3,265 in 2006, Otsego Social Services Commissioner Joyce Boyd said.

That amounts to a 62 percent increase in five years, she noted.

The surge in applications for food stamps and other benefits, she said, has led to increased caseloads for county social workers. In some cases, she added, there have been longer periods of uncertainty for needy families waiting to hear whether their applications have been approved.

"There's a lot of stress on everyone, and not just the employees," Boyd said.

Contacted at his Delhi office, Delaware County Social Services Commissioner William Moon said in his 32 years of overseeing the agency he has never seen so many people in need of assistance.

"We're in a real funk," Moon said. "I've seen three or four economic recessions, but I have never seen anything as bad as this."

Over the past year alone, the number of people getting food stamps in Delaware County has climbed from 5,269 to 5,644, Moon said.

The number of people receiving any type of public assistance in the county -- including Medicaid, food stamps or temporary public assistance -- now stands at 13,418 -- up from about 9,600 individuals in 2007, he said.

The same grim trend can also be found in Schoharie and Chenango counties.

In Schoharie, just 1,885 people received food stamps in July 2006. But that number soared to 3,738 people as of July, according to statistics kept by the state Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance.

Chenango County counted 8,237 people receiving food stamps in July -- up from 5,036 five years earlier, according to the state agency.

As food and energy prices climb and jobs are scarce, many people in need have turned to food pantries and soup kitchens, social workers said.

In Norwich, at the Roots & Wings program operated by Catholic Charities of Chenango County, program director Melinda Mandeville said: "We're seeing a pretty big increase in the number of families who come to our food pantry."

As grocery prices escalate, Mandeville said, some families are unable to make it through the month on their allotment of food stamps.

"They may end up visiting two different food pantries," she said. Last month, the Roots & Wing food pantry assisted 494 families -- up from 437 families served in September 2010, she said.

In flood-battered Schoharie County, a food pantry operated by a local anti-poverty program was forced to close three weeks ago because funding from outside sources dried up.

"All the demands on the whole system are increasing at a time when resources to meet those demands are dwindling," said Jeannette Spaulding, deputy director of Schoharie County Community Action.

The program's former food pantry visitors have been referred to other food pantries in the region, most of them run by local churches.

Said Spaulding: "This is a need that is not going to go away overnight."

The food stamp program is funded by the federal government through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. In New York, the program is administered by the counties, which bear half the cost of issuing the vouchers.

Along with the rising demand for public assistance, New York counties are struggling to abide by a 2 percent property tax cap imposed by the state Legislature and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. County officials said they have been hoping Albany would relieve them of funding certain state-mandated programs, but so far no relief is in the offing.

In Otsego County, the increase in food stamp and welfare applications comes at a time when all county departments have been asked to trim their budgets in order to close a looming multimillion-dollar gap.

Commissioner Boyd said she has found some savings by recalculating the county's Medicaid payment responsibility and trying to find family-placement alternatives to foster care. All told, she said, she has been asked to come up with roughly $1 million in cuts to her department.

Given the demands on the programs overseen by her department, Boyd said, she does not envision recommending any reductions in staffing.