A new rule going into effect today will allow about 23,000 more Washington families to apply for the state's food stamp program.
The Department of Social and Health Services changed eligibility rules for the Basic Food program, now allowing families with incomes at or below 200 percent of poverty level to apply.
Until today, families at or below 130 percent of the poverty level could apply. For a family of four, that meant an income of $26,900 or less. The new threshold for a family of four is $42,400.
"While the job market in Washington has remained steadier than other areas of the country, some people here are losing their jobs," said Troy Hutson, assistant secretary for the department's Economic Services Administration, in a written statement. "When you add increasing food and gas costs, more and more people are going to need help making ends meet. The food stamp program is the nation's first defense against hunger."
John Olivas, interim administrator for the department's region that includes the Tri-Cities, said the Kennewick office has been telling people for the last month they may be eligible for food stamps under the new rule.
Based on department projections, Olivas expects there may be a 20 percent increase in the number of Basic Food applications because of the new rule.
Applications have been steadily rising already because of the economic crunch many families are facing as gas and food prices have gone up, he said.
From March 2007 to March 2008, participation in the Basic Food program rose 4 percent statewide. Olivas said the Tri-Cities has seen a comparable increase.
And while food stamp applications usually slow in June, July and August, there was no such drop-off this year, he said.
"We are operating at the pace we normally do in November," Olivas said. "November and December are our biggest months. ... We're getting Christmas in July so to speak."
As of June 2008, department statistics show there were 17,718 people living at or below 125 percent of poverty level who were getting food stamps in Benton County; 10,157 in Franklin County; 5,941 in Walla Walla County; 45,137 in Yakima County; 2,706 in Adams County; and 12,407 in Grant County.
Compared with June 2007, that was an additional 1,003 people in Benton County, 694 in Franklin County, 2,105 in Yakima County and 570 in Grant County.
Olivas said for the region -- which includes Benton, Franklin, Yakima, Walla Walla, Columbia and Kittitas counties -- 34 percent of new food stamp applications were in the Tri-Cities and 32 percent were in Yakima.
"We know the economy has played a big factor," he said. "That's probably why we're seeing more."
Walla Walla County had 174 fewer people getting food stamps in June 2008 than in June 2007. Adams County's number dropped by 168 people in that time.
Local food banks that often provide a supplement to food stamps also are seeing a dramatic rise in demand, officials said.
Art King, executive director of Tri-Cities Food Banks, said he also has not seen the typical summer slump at the food banks in Kennewick, Richland and Benton City.
"Luckily we have been able to keep up with demand and have food on the shelves," King said.
King often wanders into the waiting room and chats with food bank clients, and he said those conversations are telling him people using the food banks are younger and are there because they're being squeezed by rising gas and food prices.
King believes the demand at the food banks will rise along with the demand for food stamps. "We're a supplement," he said. "We believe in only being a supplement."
It takes an average four to five days to process an application. For Expedited Basic Food, the program for those with emergency needs, the processing time is one to two days, he said.
To apply for food stamps, visit the DSHS Kennewick office at 1120 N. Edison St., call 877-980-9140, or apply online at www.dshs.wa.gov and click on the red button marked "apply for services."