The Times Argus reports that earlier this week, "representatives of the Washington and Chittenden county hunger councils met with legislators, heads of state agencies, and two national anti-hunger experts [to discuss] ways to improve Vermonters' access to food stamps — the first line of defense against hunger." Advocates are particularly concerned about improving program access in the face of food and fuel price increases and the approaching winter.
Currently, about "80 percent of people eligible for the program participate." This means that Vermont's food stamp use is "close to an all-time high." Among the elderly, however, this rate is lower. Indeed, only 32 percent of the elderly (people age 60 and older) who are eligible for the program participate. " In addition, although the general rate of food stamp use is higher in Vermont than the national average, the rate for Vermont's working poor has declined and flattened."
"Renee Richardson, the director of Vermont's food stamp program, described some of the state's initiatives to extend eligibility and increase benefits:
- Exclude IRAs from the resource limit. The limit keeps many elderly people from applying for benefits. Someone with a $20,000 IRA would be disqualified.
- Remove the cap on child care costs. Eligible families' allotments would increase.
- Get a waiver to increase the standard deduction for medical expenses and allow people to itemize expenses. The change would help the elderly.
- Provide five months of 'continuation' benefits for families that are leaving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families.
- Waive face-to-face interviews for determining eligibility. Adopting new technologies to improve services – part of the state's food stamp 'modernization program' – will make it possible for people to apply at any time and without driving to a food stamp office.
- And, lengthen the recertification period – the interval for reconfirming eligibility – from six to 12 months. Many eligible people fail to complete the recertification process and later reapply for food stamps, losing benefits for a while and increasing the staff's workload."
Mayor of Montpelier Mary Hooper "called on state officials to implement the recommended changes to the food stamp program immediately." She concluded, "We have a crisis that's going to happen in six months that we need to be planning for right now. This needs to be in place. We need to be ready to move forward before January gets here. This is urgent – it has to happen now."