Gregory Bull, Associated Press
Domitila Lara helps her children with homework in San Diego. Lara waited more than three months for food stamps after her husband lost his job.
SAN ANTONIO — When Amanda Vaca's husband lost his job, the couple took stock of their finances and drew a startling conclusion: They could not afford to feed their four young children.
So Vaca filled out an application for food stamps. Then, the wait began. A month passed, then two. In some weeks, the food simply ran out.
"There was several occasions where I didn't have breakfast to cook them or all there was was noodles," said Vaca, a customer-service representative in Fort Worth who got laid off shortly after her husband. They waited three months for assistance.
The recession has landed millions of hungry families in similar straits, forcing them to endure long waits for help buying basic groceries. A review by The Associated Press found that dozens of food-stamp programs in 39 states left at least a quarter of applicants waiting weeks or months for food aid, some in areas that were not particularly hard hit by the economic downturn.
Federal law requires applications for food stamps to be reviewed within 30 days of being filed, and even faster for the poorest families. Failure to do so can subject agencies to federal sanctions and lawsuits, but individual families are largely at the mercy of their local administrators.
Among the excuses for the delays were overburdened bureaucracies, staff shortages or program rules. But that makes little difference to parents with hungry children.
"It got to that point where there was nothing. It was scary. It was very, very stressful," Vaca said. "We went to churches to get food, food banks or whatever. I was always searching for places to get food."
In fiscal 2009, Texas left about a third of its applicants waiting more than 30 days for food assistance, the worst among states examined by the AP, even though Texas was spared the brunt of the recession.
In Rhode Island, nearly a quarter of new applications were delayed. In Florida, Colorado and Nevada, about one-fifth of applications were processed late.
In the months since those problems arose, some agencies have improved their processing systems, but application delays persist in many places.
Vaca spent days pleading by phone and in person for someone to look at her application. At one point, a frazzled office manager took her to a back room to show her piles of unprocessed applications. Her family eventually was approved for food stamps and received retroactive benefits for the months they were waiting.
A record 40 million people — one in eight Americans — now rely on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance, the official name of the modern food stamp program, which began in 1961. The number of participating households increased by one-fifth in fiscal 2009, and many states' food-stamp rolls grew by a third or more.
"Never in our lifetimes have these programs been so urgently needed," said Kevin Cancannon, undersecretary of the Department of Agriculture, which oversees food stamps.
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The government uses a complicated formula for determining eligibility, but a family of four must earn less than $2,389 per month. The federal government funds the full cost of benefits and half the administrative costs, a total of $53.77 billion in fiscal 2009. The average monthly payout is $275 per household.
State and local governments, though they pay only a small percentage of the overall program costs, administer the aid and are allowed to add extra eligibility requirements. Some have added things such as fingerprints or notarized documents as fraud-prevention measures, though the effectiveness of such requirements has been debated.
Cancannon said some of those rules create additional hurdles that needlessly slow aid to needy families.