Barely half of Seattle residents who are eligible to receive food stamp assistance actually participate in the federal Food Stamp Program, according to a report released this week.
Seattle joins five other cities at the bottom of the food stamp participation list, according to the Washington, D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center program. The report takes a look at the food stamp participation in America's largest cities.
The action center's data is based on a "local access indicator" that compares the number of persons earning below 130 percent of the federal poverty level to persons participating in the food stamp program in 2004.
Joining Seattle at the bottom of the list are San Diego; Las Vegas; Jacksonville, and Los Angeles. Cities at the top of the participation list — with better than 90 percent participation — are Memphis, Indianapolis, Milwaukee and Detroit.
Families who are eligible to receive food stamps under Washington's Basic Food Program but do not participate lack significant resources to purchase adequate food. A report by the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently found that those who receive food assistance are not likely to experience food insecurity and child poverty.
Without food stamps, families must turn more frequently to emergency food programs or go hungry. In addition, leaving food stamp dollars on the table deprives local communities of food-buying power: In Seattle this lost buying power totals $54 million annually.
"In addition to families missing out on key food resources, communities suffer when program participation is low," said Linda Stone, Eastern Washington director for the Children's Alliance, a statewide advocacy organization.
"Think of Basic Food as a counter-recessionary program — when the community's economy suffers, increased food stamp participation helps grocers, farmers and the community," Stone said.
The action center's report does not provide information on the reasons for low participation in Seattle, but local advocates and outreach workers offered several possible explanations: continued confusion about Basic Food eligibility, misinformation about the program that discourages applying, language barriers and the continuing stigma of receiving food stamps.
Some families see the complex application and simply give up.
"Eligible families should not be missing out on Basic Food benefits," Stone said. "We know that there are barriers like misinformation and language, but much has been done to make the program work better for everyone, including working families."
Washington State has taken steps in the last several years to make it easier to apply for Basic Food. These include simplified reporting of income and other changes once a family has been made eligible, changes in vehicle ownership rules that allow families to own operable cars and still receive assistance and expanded use of telephone interviews instead of face-to-face office visits.
Much more, however, can be done to increase Seattle participation. Efforts already under way include Basic Food outreach services coordinated by Hopelink, a Seattle-based nonprofit that provides information about the program and assistance in completing applications.
If a family receives help completing its application from Hopelink or its subcontracting agencies, the family automatically is offered a telephone interview instead of being required to visit a local office.
"Applying for Basic Food is not as difficult as people may think," said Alice Kurle, program manager for Basic Food education and outreach at Hopelink.
"A call to Hopelink for help in applying is the first step. If we help you with your application, you won't even need to go into the Department of Social and Human Services office; you can be interviewed on the phone."
To reach Hopelink, call 1-877-644-3663. Operators are available in English and Spanish. For information on other nutrition programs, and in additional languages, contact Family Food Hotline at 1-888-4-FOOD WA.
For a complete copy of the action center's report go to www.frac.org.