LEWISTON — Difficult economic times have caused more Mainers to apply for food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has seen its applicant pool increase to record numbers within the past year.

SNAP provides monthly assistance to low-income households in the form of money deposited onto an electronic balance transfer card. Between June 2008 and June 2009, the number of individuals receiving food assistance in Maine surged from 181,084 to 212,038, according to Department of Health and Human Services statistics.

The combination of increased eligibility and more individuals applying for assistance may be the reason behind the surge. Recent modifications to SNAP eligibility criteria, which excludes certain assets from being counted against an individual, has made more people eligible to receive food assistance. Regulations typically dictate that a household must have a gross income that totals less than 130 percent of the national poverty rate to be eligible.

Kevin Concannon, a former commissioner at the Maine Department of Human Services and President Obama’s nominee as the Under Secretary of Agriculture for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, believes that the regulations were helpful. “Most people are working but they may be receiving fewer hours from their companies,” Concannon said of the increasing population of workers who have seen dramatic pay cuts and will benefit from food assistance.

Along with the new eligibility standards, the government has also raised SNAP benefits by 14 percent as part of their stimulus program. Along with children, who make up approximately 50 percent of SNAP recipients, Concannon notes that elderly persons in Maine, which has the highest median age in the nation, are also in need. “In a cold-weather state, energy costs have gone up, and elderly people on fixed incomes have fewer and fewer dollars available to pay for food,” he said.

Deborah Vanburgel, director of the Office of Integrated Access and Support for DHHS, attributes the dramatic increase in number of Mainers on the Food Supplement Program to the state’s efforts in reaching out to those who are eligible. “We’re first or second in the nation for access rate,” she said.

In Androscoggin County, the number of persons receiving SNAP benefits has increased from 18,987 to 22,640 in the past year.

The increased need for food assistance is a national trend. From April 2008 to April 2009, the federal DHHS reports that the number of individuals receiving SNAP benefits nationwide surged from 28 million to nearly 34 million, an all-time record.

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