TAMPA — Despite improvements in the economy, a record number of Hillsborough County residents rely on government help to feed themselves and their children, according to figures from the state and school district.
When school starts in the county next week, 71,000 students will receive free breakfasts and lunches, an unprecedented number, according to Mary Kate Harrison, general manager for student nutrition at Hillsborough County Schools.
This time last year, 58,000 students were enrolled in the free meal program.
What’s driving the growth?
“We can only hypothesize,” Harrison said. “But we look at the salaries being paid to some of our own — salaries for blue collar-type jobs. They just don’t make enough money.”
On Friday, Gov. Rick Scott announced Florida had gained 34,500 private-sector jobs in the month of July, the largest monthly increase in more than two years.
That same month, 229,276 state residents applied for government aid in the form of food stamps, cash assistance or Medicaid — the third-highest number on record, according to the Department of Children and Families.
Hillsborough County recorded 16,186 requests for aid, a new county record.
Patrick Mason, a labor economist at Florida State University, suspects the rise in claims has to do with the ebb and flow of farm work. When work is rare in the summer, workers look for help buying food.
But even he suspects that’s not the entire story.
Unemployment numbers have been dropping in recent years partly because thousands of people have simply stopped looking for work, a decision that causes them to disappear from government calculations.
That doesn’t take them off food-stamp rolls, however.
“You have to eat, even if you’re frustrated about looking for a job,” Mason said.
In recent years, July, August and September have seen spikes in the numbers of people seeking aid, DCF records show.
For those people new to the food stamp program, Joyce Johnson has some advice: Spend your money wisely.
Johnson, 52, has spent years living on disability insurance, Medicare and food stamps. She’s not married and her four children are grown and gone. So she gets about $70 a month in aid for groceries.
She has become a master strategist at finding bargains. She shops at meat markets for deals on chicken. She relies on food pantries when her money runs out each month.
She tries to buy fresh food when she can afford it. On a recent trip to Walmart in North Tampa, she hunted for collard greens but couldn’t find any.
Johnson said she always to balance two issues when she shops: “What is good for me, and what I can buy?”
“We really have to think about it to stretch our dollars with the food stamps to get the things we need,” said Johnson’s girlfriend, Rachel Pennington, as the two waited with their groceries for the bus back home to the Ybor City area.
“Certain people feel that we feel entitled, but that’s not the case,” Pennington said. “I worked and worked and then became disabled. It’s a benefit I’m grateful for.”
The economic downturn led to an increase in people living on disability insurance and, along with it, Medicare and other government aid.
Food stamp numbers declined for the first time in many months this spring, a downward trend DCF officials found hopeful. But in June, numbers jumped to their highest point in nearly a year.
Terry Field, spokesman for DCF’s Tampa office, said the agency still expects numbers to decline as the economy picks up.
“Although the month of July did see an increase in the number of applications received, it would be premature to speculate as to the cause of that increase after only one month,” Field said.
“As the economy continues to improve, we believe that the number of people receiving temporary assistance will continue to gradually decrease.”