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Many more worry about next meal

When I was an adolescent in the late 1980s, the words “food stamps” might as well have been dirty.

They were synonymous with welfare — laziness, irresponsibility and poor people taking advantage of the system. It was embarrassing for some to know a loved one was on government aid. So people hid behind the hurtful jokes and stinging insults.

Nearly 20 years after then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton pledged to “end welfare as we know it,” thankfully much of that stigma has faded. Americans receiving government assistance now cannot do so indefinitely. And food stamps are no longer the colorful and conspicuous coupons of old.

Rather, users carry a debit card to purchase certain items — essentials like milk, eggs and bread.

While the stigma of food stamps (now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) appears to have dissipated, a troubling fact still exists:

More people — both nationally and in our county — rely on them to meet their basic nutritional needs. That number appears to be growing year after year, and there’s little doubt that the current state of the economy will add more people to the list.

A recent article in The New York Times noted that more than 36 million Americans currently use food stamps and that the program is expanding nationwide by about 20,000 people each day. According to the Times, the rise in participation is due in part to the government — under the Bush administration — making it easier to apply, as well as government outreach efforts.

It’s no different in San Luis Obispo County.

About 5,800 families receive nutrition assistance (that includes those who receive cash aid and those who do not), with the highest concentration in Paso Robles and the Five Cities area, according to the latest data from the county’s Department of Social Services. A total of 2,558 new applications have been processed from July through September.

The case loads continue to rise, said Chris Haggie, program manager with the Department of Social Services and the former food stamp program manager. The number of cases is up more than 14 percent over last year and 38 percent over the past two years.

Furthermore, considerably more people — many considered to be middle class, first-time applicants — have been seeking help since the start of the recession.

“The real reason there’s such a need is that it’s related to the economic downturn,’’ Haggie explained. “Everybody is overextended and maxed out. By the time they make their minimum payments on their bills, there’s nothing left for food.”

It’s sobering to think that in one of the wealthiest nations in the world — and here in one of the most affluent places in California — that our neighbors, colleagues and friends might be wondering where their next meal is coming from.

But that’s exactly what’s happening, and it’s a truth that we can’t ignore.

It’s also a reminder of how close each of us is to facing a day without employment or food on the table. No one would choose to go hungry or deny his or her children nourishment.

The shame is not in accepting a helping hand. The real shame is in passing judgment on those who find themselves with bare cupboards.As my elders would say, “There, but for the grace of God go I.”

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