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Aid hasn't kept pace with rising food costs

Thousands of food stamp recipients in Mecklenburg County will soon get good news: The government is helping them buy more groceries.

But for most, it won't be enough to feed their families.

The rapid rise in food prices pinching most households is severely affecting those on food stamps, the federal food assistance program.

More now rely on soup kitchens and food pantries or simply go without basic foods, social workers say. In the most dire cases, advocates say, recipients are skipping rent, utility or other bills to make ends meet.

Over the last year, the cost of what the government defines as a minimum nutritional diet jumped 8.5 percent, the biggest increase in more than 20 years.

The price of one dozen eggs, for instance, went up from $1.61 to $1.82, and one pound of cheddar cheese from $4.10 to $4.60.

For Christy Green that means buying meat on or near the expiration date because that's when stores reduce the price.

Green, 30, a student at Central Piedmont Community College, receives $542 a month to feed her and her four children. When that isn't enough, she goes to local food banks.

“They say eat healthy, but you can't when three apples cost $4 or $5,” she said.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will increase the food stamp benefits 8.5 percent beginning Oct. 1. Recipients typically receive between $200 and $250 a month.

Officials determine payouts each June based on inflation for basic food items.

But advocates and recipients say the adjustment is inadequate to keep pace with prices.

Stacy Dean, director of food assistance for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington advocacy group, said increasing prices this summer meant a $56 difference between the cost of a minimum nutritional diet and how much families on food stamps received. Agricultural economists predict prices for staples like meat will continue to climb, meaning the gap will persist, Dean said.

Government officials insist benefits are fair. Food stamps are intended to supplement food budgets, they argue.

The decline in purchasing power comes as a stagnant economy is pushing more Mecklenburg residents on food stamps, up 3 percent since January. Roughly, 85,000 people – about one in 10 residents – are food stamp recipients.

On a recent afternoon, about two dozen people came to the Loaves & Fishes food bank uptown looking for free bags of groceries. Most of the agency's visitors receive food stamps.

Greg Lassiter of Connections, a social outreach organization, said he regularly brings clients because their food stamps do not buy enough food for an entire month. “By the end of a week their cabinets are empty,” Lassiter said.

Jamie Gilson and her boyfriend said they came to the food bank because they had spent $1,500 to move into an apartment. They had been homeless for three months.

Gilson said she buys generic brands and tries to buy meat only where it is on sale, but food prices mean her food stamps haven't been enough.

“I used to fill a cart for $100,” she said. “Now that's half a cart. If you don't buy enough Ramen Noodles at the beginning of the month, you're screwed.”