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Washington broadens food-stamp eligibility

Family of four earning $42,400 can qualify for aid

OLYMPIA – Like a lot of mothers with families to feed, Spokane Valley’s Lisa Sandefur shops carefully for groceries.

She goes to the Dollar Store for canned goods. She buys big bags of store-brand cereal. And she tends to forgo things like juice in favor of Kool-Aid.

“Fruit kind of gets left by the wayside,” she said Wednesday. “And I used to think that hamburger was cheap. It’s not so cheap anymore.”

Help may be on the way. Starting Oct. 1, Washington is easing its eligibility requirements for the state’s food-stamp program, known as Basic Food. The change means tens of millions of dollars in food each year for an estimated 23,000 more families across the state.

“The Basic Food program is the first line of defense against hunger in Washington state,” said Glynnis Ashley, administrator for food programs at the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The average benefit in Washington last year was $181 a month. Extremely cash-strapped families can qualify for more: A three-person household, for example, can get as much as $463 worth of food a month.

“It’s really timely, with food costs as high as they are,” said Linda Stone, who heads up the Eastern Washington efforts of the Children’s Alliance. The advocacy group was one of several that pushed lawmakers to approve the change.

As things stand, the program is only available to people living on less than 130 percent of the federal poverty level. That’s about $27,000 for a family of four.

Starting Oct. 1, however, families earning up to 200 percent may be eligible. The same family, in other words, may now qualify if they’re earning as much as $42,400 a year.

In recent years, Washington has also done away with rules that sharply limited the value of eligible families’ cars or other assets.

“No longer is having a reliable car or some savings or a retirement plan going to prevent you from being able to access the program,” said John Camp, a lead food-policy analyst with DSHS. “We want to reach as many people as possible with this program.” Households with little or no income are typically approved for benefits in less than two days, he said.

The cost to the state budget is relatively tiny: about $1.1 million a year to pay for 28 new staffers to process the thousands of expected new applications. The vast majority of the cost – an estimated $51 million more in food, according to Ashley – will be paid for by the federal government.

State officials stressed Wednesday that eligibility is based on more than income. Housing costs, utilities, child support, child care and other expenses are part of the calculation to see if a family qualifies, and for how much. But the officials also said that even minimal benefits can qualify a family for other help, such as reduced telephone rates and free school lunches.

In approving the change this spring, Washington followed the lead of Oregon, which in 2002 raised the income limit to 185 percent of the poverty level. As a result, an estimated 86 percent of eligible families there take part in Oregon’s food program.

In Washington, that rate is only 68 percent, leading lawmakers, including Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, to push to raise eligibility. Such moves have only been possible since 2002 under federal farm legislation, Stone said. The 200 percent eligibility limit, Camp said, “is the maximum that the federal government will allow us to do.”

Although still widely referred to as food stamps, the program today uses a debit-style card that’s swiped through machines at grocery stores. Benefits can be saved from month to month, allowing families to splurge on Thanksgiving meals or other holidays.

In Spokane Valley, Sandefur is a stay-at-home mother to her three kids, ages 5, 12 and 17. (A fourth child is grown and has moved out.) The family lives on $2,500 to $3,000 a month, she estimates, although the money varies with the work available to her boyfriend, a satellite-dish installer.

She said she was initially a little embarrassed to apply for the program.

“But you think, ‘There’s a reason for it,’ ” she said. “It’s nice that you don’t have to be super-low-income. A lot of times, when you get in the middle-income range, it’s harder than when you were lower income.”