Danielle Brown stands outside a South Side market at midnight, braving the spring chill for her first chance to buy groceries since her food stamps ran out nearly two weeks ago.
For days, Brown has been turning cans of "whatever we got in the cabinet" into breakfast, lunch and dinner for her children, ages 1 and 3, who finished off the last of the milk and cereal long ago.
"Ain’t got no food left, the kids are probably hungry," said Brown, a 23-year-old single mother who relies heavily on her $312 monthly allotment of food stamps ù a ration adjusted just once a year, in October.
This is what the skyrocketing cost of food looks like at street level: Poor people whose food stamps don’t buy as much as they once did rushing into a store in the dead of night, filling shopping carts with cereal, eggs and milk so their kids can wake up on the first day of the month to a decent meal.
Here’s what it looks like another way: The number of Americans relying on food stamps has climbed 6.1 percent in the past year, from 26.1 million in February 2007 to 27.7 million in February this year. Every state except for Arkansas and Colorado saw the food stamp rolls increase, led by Nevada and Florida ù both also hit hard by the housing crisis.
The sputtering economy, persistent unemployment and the mortgage crisis have all contributed to the increase. The U.S. Agriculture Department expects the overall number of participants to reach 28 million next year.
It all paints a picture that experts say is becoming more grim every month.
"People with incomes below the poverty threshold are in dire straits because not only are food prices increasing but the food stamps they are receiving have not increased," said Dr. John Cook, an associate professor at Boston University’s medical school who has studied the food stamp program, particularly how it affects children.
On the South Side of Chicago, what it means is that people like Danielle Brown wait for the stroke of midnight, when one month gives way to another and brings a new allotment of food stamps.
Dennis Kladis began opening his family-owned One Stop Food & Liquors once a month at midnight nine months ago to give desperate families a chance to buy food as soon as possible.
"I’m telling you, by the end of the month they’re just dying to get back to the first," said Kladis, who has watched other area stores follow his lead. "Obviously, they are struggling to get through the month."
For Lynda Wheeler, who receives $281 in food stamps each month, the rhythm of life has been one of shopping for food, running out of food and turning to churches, food pantries and friends for food. And all the while, she is doing things like cutting milk with water to make it last a bit longer.
"You get it on the first and it runs out by the 14th and 15th," said Wheeler, a single mom who brought her 14-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter shopping at midnight with the Link card, the Illinois version of food stamps.
The consumer price index for food rose 5 percent last year, the highest gain in nearly two decades. It is especially grim news for the poor.
Start with milk. Between March 2007 and this year, a gallon of milk jumped from just over $3 a gallon to nearly $3.80, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the same period, eggs climbed from about $1.60 a dozen to $2.20. Meanwhile, everything from white bread to chicken to tomatoes is more expensive than it was last year.
Just last summer, the maximum food stamp payment ù $542 a month for a family of four with a gross income of no more than $2,238 ù was enough to cover the USDA’s "thrifty food plan," a bare-bones diet that meets minimal nutritional needs. Studies show that allotment now falls about $25 short, Cook said.
Because food stamp allotments are adjusted every fall based on the federal food inflation rate, recipients are months away from getting any relief. But even when that relief comes, advocates say, it won’t come close to keeping pace with rising costs.
Meanwhile, demand is growing. The number of U.S. food stamp participants grew by 482,000 between October and February; in the same time period a year earlier, the figure dropped by 135,000.
And just getting to the store is a lot more expensive. Since October, the cost of gas has shot up nationally from $2.70 a gallon to $3.62, according to the Lundberg Survey, a petroleum market research firm. With 31 cents of that jump in the last month alone, Lundberg says there is a good chance the price will top $4 a gallon by the end of the summer.
That means the poor are spending money on gas that they might otherwise have used for food ù sometimes striking deals with people who have cars to buy them food using the only currency they have.
"Even if they don’t have a car, they are using food stamps just to get a ride to the store," said Dan Block, a Chicago State University geography professor who has studied grocery store shopping in Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods.
High gas prices were the reason 58-year-old Floyd Ogalvie made the 15-minute trip for the midnight opening this month in his electric wheelchair.
"My old lady, she drives, but she didn’t want to drive to save gas," he said.
For starters, gas prices are not part of the equation. USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel did say that the agency is trying to help and noted recipes for inexpensive meals are posted on the agency Web site.
But she said there is only much food stamp programs can ù or were meant ù to do.
"Food stamps were designed to be a supplement to the food budget, (they) were never intended to be the entire budget," she said.
If the USDA pulls $1.7 billion from a contingency fund of $6 billion this year to support the food stamp program, as it expects to do, that would be the largest withdrawal since $2 billion was pulled out after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The program saw a surge in demand that year as well, with the number of recipients climbing to 27.9 million in October and 29.8 million in November.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a five-year, $300 billion farm bill that includes $200 billion for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. Daniel said it was too early to say how the at will affect benefits to food stamp recipients and she knew of no provision in the bill to make the annual adjustment before the fall.
In the meantime, there are signs that the same people shopping at midnight on the first of the month may be getting hungrier sooner.
Maura Daly of America’s Second Harvest, a national network of food banks, said food banks are seeing a 20 percent increase in the number of people turning to them for help. Much of that increase, she said, comes at month’s end.
Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, said she’s seeing people more frantic for food than ever.
"The level of desperation is just frightening," she said. "People are calling, saying they have no idea what they are going to do."
But even as demand is rising, many food panties nationwide have been forced to cut back on the amount of food given to individual families because higher fuel costs and commodity prices have sliced into private donations to the pantries, Daly and others say.
What that means is the hungry are casting an ever wider net for food, showing up at pantry after pantry.
"We’re seeing people come to us from further and further outside our geographical boundaries, (from) as far away as Indiana and southern Wisconsin," said Greg Nergaard, coordinator at Lakeview Pantry on Chicago’s North Side. "What they say is they didn’t know where else to go."
For now, many of the needy, including many in Kladis’ store pushing carts laden with soda pop, bags of cookies and chips ù much of it cheaper than healthier food ù are doing what they can to stretch their shrinking buying power.
"The bottom line is, a mother trying to feed her kids is not really picky about what she puts in their bellies," said Dan Gibbons, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation. "She just wants them full." -AP
Danielle Brown shops after midnight at One Stop Food store on the south side of Chicago, Thursday, May, 1, 2008. The market doors open at midnight on the first of each month for the express purpose of letting her and a dozen or so others to start shopping the instant they have access to the new month’s allotment of food stamps.
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(AP Photo/Paul Beaty)