Skyrocketing need has put a strain on programs designed to feed the hungry, but technology and charitable giving have prevented the state's safety net from bursting on the Treasure Coast.
As of November, a record 3 million Floridians, including more than 85,000 Treasure Coast residents, receive food stamps through the state-run, federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The numbers are about triple the number on food stamps five years ago, according to state data. About 15 percent of both Treasure Coast and Florida residents are on food stamps.
The increase has forced Florida Department of Children and Families employees to handle more calls, process more paperwork ensuring eligibility and create more partnerships to make sure people are getting aid. Local food pantries, meanwhile, are working to get more food to help people when food stamps do not provide enough food.
The long-term poor no longer are making up most of the roll for those collecting food stamps, experts say. Rather, more former business owners, middle class families and others sapped by the downturn in the economy and housing market need help than before.
"What I find shocking (is) a lot of the people that we're serving now are people that were supporters of our programs and of the food bank and of our agencies, so we're serving people that in the past have been people that could afford to pay for themselves," Treasure Coast Food Bank Chief Executive Officer Judith Cruz said. "So there's a pride and dignity factor there and they're not comfortable in the situation that they're in. So the face of hunger has definitely changed."
The federal government pays for the food stamp program, but the state administers it and covers the cost of employees. Although the number of needy has increased, the latest data available from the DCF show only slight increases — less than 250 people per county — for Treasure Coast counties from October to November.
But few expect a drop as sharp as the rise.
Falling unemployment rates — the Treasure Coast's unemployment rate for December was 11.2 percent — will help decrease the number of residents on food stamps.
But others see a wave of need coming.
Martin County nonprofit House of Hope Pantry Manager Kathy Carmody said in the past, the service agency had its largest demands during the summer when seasonal service jobs are eliminated or cut back and children are out of school. The average person is now on food stamps for about 11 months, according to the DCF.
"What we're seeing now is (the need) is all year long," Carmody said.
To combat the increased demand, the state has worked to become more efficient.
DCF has implemented an automated system to help people get in the program more quickly by allowing people to use computers to handle paperwork previously requiring office visits or phone calls. About 95 percent of applications now come through the Internet, DCF spokeswoman Erin Gillespie said. The average wait for a person entering the program to get food stamps now is 15 days.
"What we found out is that the majority of people calling our customer service call center 1-800 number were just calling to get the status of their case," Gillespie said. "Once you apply, you wait a week, you don't hear anything, you're going to start calling, right? And so people would call every day to try to get their status and now they can go onto the website and see how it's going."
The state is continuing to add new features so people can check different food stamp updates from home. The automation frees state resources to process new food stamp requests from people in need.
Several organizations also are working to make sure people qualified for food stamps take advantage of the opportunity. The Treasure Coast Food Bank is working on outreach because people in need — especially those with homes — might not realize they are eligible. Less than 2 percent of Treasure Coast residents on food stamps are homeless, Cruz said.
Local organizations also are ramping up collections and taking advantage of partnerships with local major retail outlets and farmers to fill the burgeoning need to supplement food stamps.
"Just when I think people have given all they could, they dig down deeper and find more, so we've been fortunate in that regard," Cruz said. "What we're trying to do is bring a voice to hunger and make people aware of the fact that your neighbor that's living next door that might have a very nice home does not have enough food to put on the table."
How to apply
Here's how to apply for food, medical assistance and cash through the Florida Department of Children and Families ACCESS Florida Program:
From a computer, go to www.myflorida.com/accessflorida .
Visit one of the Department of Children and Families ACCESS Florida community partners. A listing of community partners can be found online at: www.dcf.state.fl.us/access/CPSLookup/search.aspx
Go to a Department