Food stamp usage up in Florida

Unemployed and strapped for cash, Floridians are asking for state assistance to feed their families in record numbers.

In the last two years, the number of Floridians on food stamps has increased more than 40 percent to 1.7 million. That increase is the highest in the nation, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. And it's the second-largest jump in the state's history, surpassed only during the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew, said an analyst at the Center of Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based think tank.

Almost one in 10 Floridians is now on food stamps, and state managers say many more qualify.

Evidence of the unprecedented rise was on display at the Florida Department of Children & Families office in Miami recently, where the line of people waiting for help snaked out the door and around the corner.

One of them was Hardy Prado, who held his 22-month-old daughter in his arms while he waited to check on the status of his application.

As a handyman, his work is irregular and his paycheck isn't enough to pay the bills. And Prado said it has been almost impossible for his partner, Ana Camacho, to find work since she left her job at a Doral flower shop on maternity leave in February 2007.

With every increase of the unemployment rate, drop in the housing market and tightening of credit, food stamp lines have lengthened, said Stacy Dean, a director at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

People "lose income, and they need help buying food," she said.

Dean said it's no surprise that Florida's increase surpasses the rest of the nation. Nationally, states hit hard by the housing downturn have experienced the largest increases, such as Nevada.

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