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Lee County food stamp numbers swell past 10 percent

By Staff | Jul 27, 2009

More than one out of every 10 people in Lee County is currently receiving food stamps, data shows, as Lee County’s economic woes continue.
June figures from the Department of Children and Families regional office in Fort Myers showed that 60,579 Lee County residents received food stamps in June.
“The most recent Census data shows Lee County with a population of 593,136. That means currently, 10.2 percent of the total population of Lee County is on food stamps,” Erin Gillespie, DCF Public Information Officer, said Friday.
The June figure amounts to a 55.9 percent increase in Lee County over the same time last year. Statewide, receivership is up only 38.5 percent.
Take a broader view and the gap increases exponentially.
“We have seen the number of people on food stamps increase by 150 percent in the last two years or so,” Gillespie said. “Lee County has consistently seen the largest increase as far as growth in the last year. There are a lot of people coming to the state for help. We have never seen the numbers this high.”
Not surprisingly, the record food stamp numbers coincided in June with an unprecedented unemployment rate that hit 13 percent in Lee County.
The statewide unemployment rate was 10.6 percent for June. The last time the state’s unemployment rate was higher than June 2009 was October 1975 when it was 11 percent.
Lee County’s peak food stamp numbers have been on a steady rise as the economy has declined, Gillespie said.
“We started seeing an increase about 18 months ago when the construction industry started to collapse,” she said. “We took a huge hit then, now with the entire economy going down we are seeing people from other industries needing help as all kinds of other industries are closing their doors or having layoffs. Until something drastic happens, I don’t see things getting any better, at least not any time in the near future.”
So for now, she said, people who need help should get it and food stamps are not as difficult to get as other types of public aid such as Medicaid or temporary cash assistance and are therefore more readily accessible.
“Food stamp eligibility is based entirely on income, so it doesn’t matter if you are single or a married couple, with or without children,” she said. “All you need to do is provide the required documentation.”
That documentation can be anything from pay stubs to birth certificates for applicants with children.
For a family of four, she said, their maximum gross monthly income is $2,297 and the maximum net income is $1,767. Based on those numbers the maximum amount of food stamps the family would receive is $588 a month.
“These numbers change, of course, based upon the number of people in the family,” she said.
Once all the paperwork is in order, the state has a maximum of 30 days to begin doling our benefits, but Gillespie said the current turnaround period in Lee County is 13 days.
Unlike in the past, recipients aren’t given unwieldy books of coupons but are issued an Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, card.
“It works just a like a debit card, except that it can only be used to purchase food,” she said. “And that doesn’t include prepared food like the pre-cooked chicken or subs at Publix.”
Because the program is federally funded, there is no limit to how much aid can be given out as long as all the necessary requirements are met.
Gillespie encourages anyone who needs help to apply.
“There is no shame in needing help. If you’re hungry or your children are hungry, apply for help, it’s why we’re here,” she said. “We’re here to help.”
For more information on applying for aid, call 338-1211.