Increasing numbers are seeking food assistance here and nationally


Hunger is on the rise in Maryland, but only a quarter of the people who use the state's food pantries receive government food stamps, according to a study released yesterday.

"Hunger in Maryland 2001" is part of a broader look at hunger across the country by America's Second Harvest, a Chicago-based network of more than 200 food banks and food-rescue programs nationwide.

The survey found that more than half of the pantries, shelters and soup kitchens in the Maryland Food Bank network reported seeing more clients this year than they did four years ago. The food bank serves an estimated 141,116 Marylanders a year, half of them from families with at least one person working full time.

Across the country, 23 million people got help from America's Second Harvest food banks, an increase of 7.5 percent in the last five years.

With the economy in a deepening slump worsened by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local providers are worried that the number of people in need of food will rise soon, perhaps sharply.

"If we couldn't pull our act together with a great economy, where are we headed?" said Bill Ewing, executive director of the Maryland Food Bank.

The worries extend to rural and urban areas of the state. Diana Loar, executive director of the Western Maryland Food Bank in Cumberland, said many elderly residents of her community have no idea how to apply for food stamps and often must choose between buying food and medicine.

Yvonne Terry, branch manager of Maryland Food Bank's Eastern Shore operation, said her clients, many of them working families, have been "coming up on crisis situations. It could be the utilities, it could be medical care, or it could be something as simple as the car breaking down."

Of the 347 Maryland clients interviewed for the study, more than half appeared to be eligible for food stamps. But only 26 percent were receiving them. Of those who hadn't applied, more than half said it was "because it is too much hassle," the survey found.

The low participation in food stamps at a time when pantry patronage has increased is a national trend that human services officials have been trying to reverse for several years.

Nationally, the food stamp rolls reached a high of 28 million people in 1994. By last year, the number was down to 17.2 million. In Maryland, an average of 225,542 people were receiving food stamps at any one time last year, 10 percent fewer than in the year before.

Officials attributed the drop in part to the improved economy over those years. But they were puzzled that though fewer people received food stamps, more lined up at soup kitchens and free pantries. Many of them were working people.

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