With more people applying for food stamps, a local group is part of a statewide effort trying to make it easier to enroll in the program.
Representatives of Toledo Area Ministries are visiting local senior centers and food pantries to let people know they might qualify for food stamps or other government assistance.
Using online tools that help to determine eligibility, the representatives screen prospective applicants using information about their income and assets to let them know if they might be able to receive food stamps or other benefits, such as WIC (Women, Infants, and Children).
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services estimates about 500,000 Ohioans who are eligible for food stamps have not signed up.
The outreach is especially necessary for people who have fallen on hard times because of the economy, said Jim Brenizer, director of meeting human need for Toledo Area Ministries.
"When we see someone who is a victim of downsizing, they aren't familiar with the system. They've never used it before," Mr. Brenizer said.
Lisa Hamler-Fugitt, executive director of the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, agreed.
"The new poor have no idea how to navigate these programs," she said.
The number of people receiving food stamps has risen sharply in Ohio in recent years - from 625,000 in 2001 to nearly 1.1 million now.
In Lucas County, 70,142 people receive food stamps - up from 50,925 recipients in 2002, according to the Lucas County Department of Job and Family Services.
The food stamp program is fairly unique among government assistance programs in that it is not limited to people with children, the disabled, elderly, or the unemployed.
Anyone with a low enough income and few resources is eligible. A person must make less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. For a family of four, that's less than $2,238 a month or $26,250 annually.
Food stamps can be used to buy items such as bread, cereal, fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, poultry, and dairy products as well as seeds and plants to grow food, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program.
They cannot be used for alcohol, cigarettes, tobacco, or nonfood items such as pet food, soap, paper products, and household supplies.
Food stamps also cannot be used to buy hot food or food that will be eaten in the store.
"A lot of the people who are coming to us are first-time people who have been affected by the recent economy," said Carrie Riddle, an AmeriCorps VISTA member working with Toledo Area Ministries for the summer. She is one of 20 AmeriCorps members working on food stamp outreach across the state.
Recently, several people from Toledo Area Ministries were at Free at Last Ministries, 2401 Valentine St. in East Toledo to help anyone who thought he or she might be eligible for assistance.
"A lot of people who could qualify for Ohio's benefits don't have the time to fill out the application, or are illiterate," Ms. Riddle said.
Toledo Area Ministries was one of 14 groups nationally to be get a USDA outreach grant in 2007, signing up 270 households to receive food stamps.
This year, the group is using USDA and Ohio Department of Job and Family Services funds to continue its outreach, along with money from the Ohio Association of Second Harvest Food Banks, AmeriCorps, and the Corporation for National and Community Service.
"[Working with community groups] enhances our ability to reach people that we haven't been able to reach in the past," said Tim English, USDA food stamp regional director for the Midwest region.
While it is hard to track how many people are signed up through outreach, "we do believe by getting the word out there and telling the people how helpful it can be to them and their families we do see increased participation," Mr. English said.
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