Special report: Food stamps ease the burden for the county’s hungry

Single mothers whose minimum wage jobs don’t provide enough income to purchase food to feed their children represent the largest number of food stamp recipients in Chenango County.

The second largest group are families who care for their ill or disabled seniors whose social security checks don’t cover their living expenses.

A very small percentage applying for food stamps have absolutely no income.

While these facts may be true, veteran welfare examiner Sandy Cleveland says she has seen representatives of all ages and societal groups walk through the county’s Department of Social Services doors on Court Street in the City of Norwich. She just wishes the media paid less attention to welfare abuse and more attention to the population that needs assistance.

“I think that, for years and years, food stamps and Medicaid have been wrapped up with welfare politics,” the 25-year county employee said. “We always see the headlines on abuse. It’s a fact of life that we are always going to have a population that needs assistance, who cannot supply for themselves and can’t cope.”

Food stamps are meant to supplement a family’s food costs every month, and can benefit single mothers who don’t earn enough at their jobs. Cleveland said they can help people have “a better quality of life and become more self-sufficient” over time.

In many cases, though, the stamps still aren’t enough. Income Maintenance and Child Support Director Sue Curnalia said more and more recipients are unable to make food stamps cover their monthly food needs.

“The government is going to have to address the increase costs for groceries, gas, and heating needs,” she said. “Households are being pinched because the level of assistance is based on poverty levels that have increased locally.

“Our hands are tied. The program determines the maximum we can provide per month.”

Those who present themselves at the county’s door as hungry on any given day see Cleveland first. After an initial assessment, followed by extensive legal paperwork and coordination within DSS’s 10-person front door unit, food stamps could be in the person’s hands within 24 hours.

Curnalia said of the 130 to 200 applicants a month, close to 45 percent receive expedited assistance. DSS is mandated to supply stamps within five days. Those who don’t qualify for expedited services are referred to food pantries, churches, Opportunities for Chenango and Catholic Charities.

“We are very fortunate in Chenango County that we do have the food pantry,” Curnalia said.

Providing food stamps is not meant to be merely a band-aid for those in need, however. Cleveland said the front door unit informs applicants about all social services programs as well as offers assistance in finding a job.

“We are looking for a long term fix. We need to educate the public better about what benefits are available through social services. We all have to work together. None of us wants our neighbors to go without medication or to starve. We have some great programs,” she said.

Welfare examiners don’t tell food stamp recipients how to eat or what foods to purchase, however. Both Curnalia and Cleveland explained that working mothers generally rent, and don’t have gardens. With two and three children to feed and working full time, preparing frozen meals is much faster and sometimes cheaper for them than growing, harvesting and cooking fresh vegetables and fruit.

A new program could help some families stretch their supplemental food stamps much further. DSS will soon be offering an educational program through Cornell Cooperative Extension in Norwich called “Eat Smart New York.” The $90,000 federal grant program is designed to guide families on making the most of their food dollars and living healthier lives as a result. The educational effort will send two instructors into the homes of people receiving food stamps.

Cooperative Extension Director Keith Severson described the program as “a brand new opportunity for people to receive nutritional instruction.”

Community gardens, like the one in the City of Norwich on Hale Street, are available and free for anyone to use. Chenango County Horticulture and Natural Resource Extension Educator Rebecca Hargrave said a number of families with children indeed do use community garden plots to grow food to supplement their food budgets. Last year, 23 individuals signed up for the 31 plots available for planting. Tools are available free, and gardening workshops are held periodically.

While Hargrave said her office doesn’t collect economic information about gardeners who sign up for a plot, she has spoken to Head Start parents about growing food. “One of the things we hope to do is teach people to grow vegetables to make the economic burden of buying food less,” she said.

But Hargrave said she believes there is a large number of hungry Chenango’s population who don’t look for help because they are too embarrassed to ask for public assistance. “I don’t think we are reaching everyone,” she said.

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