With two teenagers to feed, an Ephrata single mom says, "I'd be in really bad shape" without the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The woman, who asked that her name be withheld, works part time for a social service agency and is seeking a full-time job after completing her associate degree.
For the past seven years, she's been receiving SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps.
She said she gets $158 a month in assistance, and even though that amount doesn't go as far as it used to, it makes a huge difference.
In the past year, with the sluggish economy, the number of households in Lancaster County receiving SNAP benefits jumped 15.7 percent, mirroring what's happening across the state and the nation.
The trend also is being felt countywide, with only a handful of municipalities not experiencing an increase.
Organizations that help those in need, including food pantries, say more and more of their clients are people who've never been in this situation before.
Households eligible for SNAP are issued an electronic benefits transfer access card, which works like a bank debit card.
In January 2011, 22,398 Lancaster County households possessed SNAP cards, up from 19,353 in January 2010, according to the state Department of Public Welfare.
Last month, 10.3 percent of the population here lived in households with a SNAP card. Statewide, it was 13.6 percent.
Nationally, from November 2009 to November 2010, the most recent months for which figures are available, the number of households enrolled in SNAP rose 16.5 percent, from 17.52 million to 20.4 million.
Locally, the only four municipalities that saw no increase in SNAP users were Christiana and Terre Hill boroughs and Drumore and Elizabeth townships.
The five most populous municipalities experienced double-digit jumps: Lancaster city was up 11.7 percent; Manheim Township, 27 percent; East Hempfield Township, 23.8 percent; Manor Township, 35.4 percent; and Warwick Township, 23.5 percent.
Ephrata Area Social Services, which runs food and clothing banks and provides other assistance largely in Ephrata Area and Cocalico school districts, is serving more new households, Executive Director Tom Swalwell said. The agency, which gets no government money, is a real grass-roots effort, he said.
Every year, about 260 families are added to the client list, Swalwell said. They're often people who've been helped sometime in the past, but now there are more new faces among them.
When they first come in, some people aren't even aware they're eligible for SNAP and other government safety-net programs, Swalwell said.
And even families who do receive SNAP may have to supplement that with donations from the food pantry, he said.
The Ephrata mother interviewed for this article said the $158 she gets doesn't cover her for the whole month, so she also relies on help from the Ephrata Area Social Services food bank.
Barry Smith, manager of Manor Township, said he sees economic distress on several levels.
First, members of his family have been laid off from jobs in the construction industry, he said.
Second, his wife, Dianne, a secretary at Central Manor Elementary School, knows a lot more children have parents out of work, Smith said.
And that means an increasing number of children who qualify for free lunches, he said.
Also, the food bank at Central Manor Church, which the couple attends, is busier than he's ever seen it, Smith said.
Benefit levels vary
Joe Darrenkamp, president of Darrenkamp's Food Markets in Willow Valley, Mount Joy and Elizabethtown, said his stores have seen a significant jump in purchases using SNAP.
From January 2010 to January 2011, dollars spent using those debit cards climbed 20 percent, he said.
From being on the market floor, Darrenkamp said he knows people are hurting. But when his accountants told him the increase was that sizable, it was still "a bit of a shock," he said.
To be eligible for SNAP, a household must have a monthly income no more than 160 percent of the federal poverty level. That threshold ranges from $1,444 for an individual to $5,935 for a family of 10. The maximum rises if the household includes an elderly person or someone with a disability.
The monthly benefit for SNAP recipients can be as high as $200 for one person and $1,502 for a 10-member household. Cathy Buhrig, division director of the Department of Public Welfare Bureau of Policy, said the minimum benefit is $10.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, the card may be used to purchase breads and cereals; fruits and vegetables; fish, poultry and other meat; and dairy products.
It also may buy seeds and plants used to grow food for the household.
The Agriculture Department says SNAP may not be used to purchase beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco; vitamins and medicine; foods that will be eaten in the store; hot food; and nonfood items such as pet food, soap, paper products and household supplies.
Kim Wittel, executive director of Love in the Name of Christ of Lancaster County, a ministry connecting the needy with churches and other resources, said she's also seeing more people requiring help who never required it before.
And because this is a new experience, "they don't know where to turn," Wittel said.
Love INC serves residents across Lancaster County, she said, and hardship is widespread.
Communities outside Lancaster city are more aware of the poverty in their midst and "know they need to step up to the plate" to address it, Wittel said.
Todd Nathan, pastor of community life at Calvary Church in Manheim Township, said government programs and social service agencies are experiencing such a backlog that churches and private institutions are doing their best to fill the breach.
Beth Fenton, coordinator of the Conestoga Valley Food Bank, said need there has increased 20 percent each of the past four years.
What she sees are growing numbers of people for whom SNAP "doesn't cut it," Fenton said.
Once households use up their monthly benefits, "we're inundated," she said.
"We provide a couple of weeks of groceries" to help tide them over, Fenton said.
The goal is to offer short-term assistance, she said, but for more households the need is becoming long term.
The food bank, housed at Forest Hills Mennonite Church in Leola, serves residents of CV School District, which encompasses Upper Leacock, East Lampeter and West Earl townships.
Despite the significant jump in demand, she said, the pantry is always well-stocked, thanks to the community's generosity.
Fenton said she encounters families who tell her, "I never dreamed I would be here."
Sometimes, they're people who've donated items to the pantry, she said, and now they're on the receiving end.
The food bank assists households of all kinds, from individuals to families to senior citizens, Fenton said.
Often, health-related problems, including disability, are a big reason they've fallen on hard times, she said.
She said she's noticed more large households using the pantry, because people are moving in together to make ends meet.
Clients schedule individual appointments at the food bank, and volunteers take that opportunity to listen to and get to know their stories, Fenton said.
"We try to give them hope."
Paula Wolf is a staff writer for the Sunday News. She can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.