Participation problems affect other USDA anti-hunger programs, where nearly two-thirds of recipients, according to the GAO, are children. Most children who are eligible for a free or reduced-price breakfast at school don't get it because their districts don't participate in the program. Fewer than 17% of children getting free or reduced-price lunches at school last year received summer meals because of the lack of sponsors, according to the Food Research and Action Center.
Ohls, the government's food stamp researcher at Mathematica, noted that those receiving food stamps typically get enough coupons to last three weeks, leaving them hungry the last week of the month. The average benefit, 74 cents per meal, is only about half of what the USDA calculates is needed for a nutritionally balanced diet. Benefits are low because the Agriculture Department's formula unrealistically assumes that even applicants with very low incomes can set aside 30% for food, Ohls said. Another assumption--that people who often lack cars can shop at low-priced supermarkets absent from many inner cities--is equally unrealistic, said David Super, general counsel for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a liberal research group. "Clearly," Ohls said, "people who are on food stamps are hungry. It is not satisfying all their food needs."
Among the USDA's highest priorities now is to substitute a plastic credit card for traditional paper food stamp coupons. The recipient's benefit amount becomes a kind of credit limit; purchases are deducted at the cash register. The process, which operates in six areas of the country, is meant to be less vulnerable to fraud and also reduce the stigma for food stamp users. California's program is scheduled to begin in San Bernardino and San Diego counties in 1995, followed by Los Angeles the next year.
While the government moves to modernize its food stamp program, people like Sondra Trudeau are at the front lines in welfare offices, helping the public sign up.
Trudeau, an Interfaith Hunger Coalition trainee, encounters people struggling with the 10-page food stamp application--shorter than those in other states, which run up to 40 pages long. Sometimes tempers flare. "If I see you on the street, I'll kill you. I'll kill you," one woman says, gesturing angrily in a social worker's direction as security guards guide her toward the door of the South-Central office.
A 58-year-old woman with bad eyesight who can't read or write approaches Trudeau, who has helped three others get food stamps today. Her food stamps stopped eight months ago--she's not sure why, but she wants to get them again. This is her seventh trip to the office, says the former garment worker, who is looking for work as a nanny or cleaning lady because she can no longer see well enough to sew. "No one will help me," she laments, explaining that she has spent five hours in the office today alone.
Nearly two hours later, Trudeau has worked with the woman's social worker to gain her $115 in food stamps and $212 in general relief. Deeply moved, the woman, explaining that she is very hungry, quietly says to Trudeau, "Thank God. Thank you."
About This Series
\o7 In this series, The Times examines four battlegrounds in the war on hunger in Southern California.\f7
* Sunday: Hungry children, caught in the battles over school breakfast.
* Monday: The growing salvage food industry--spawned by hard times--takes a bite out of charitable food banks.
* Today: U.S. Department of Agriculture changes course and launches a crusade to attract more people to food stamps.
* Wednesday: A one-woman crusade to ease neighborhood hunger, one family at a time.
Fighting Hunger With Food Stamps
The food stamp program is the government's single largest effort to fight hunger, providing people whose net income is at or below the poverty level with coupons that can be used to purchase food in grocery stores. About one in nine Americans--and nearly half a million households in Los Angeles County--receive food stamps. The program, which has bipartisan support, was first developed during the Depression. Food stamps can be used to buy most food, but not alcohol or cigarettes.
HOW IT WORKS
* Applications: In Los Angeles County, the Department of Public Social Services--the local welfare agency--handles applications (although applicants do not have to be receiving welfare).
* The coupons: In denominations of $1, $5 and $10. Recipients pick up their booklets of coupons on or after an assigned date.
* Outlets: Coupons can be used at any store certified by the USDA, which includes most grocery stores in Los Angeles.
* Meat and vegetables
* Bread and cereal
* Soft drinks and candy
* Detergents, toilet paper, soap, cleaning supplies
RECIPIENTS IN THE U.S.
* 62% of households include children; of those, more than two-thirds are single-parent homes
* 52% of the recipients are under age 18