WASHINGTON – With Americans getting food stamps (search) and school lunches in record numbers, now is the wrong time for the Bush administration to push people out of nutrition programs, an anti-hunger group says.
The number of people getting food stamps rose over the past four years from 16.9 million to 25.1 million, the Food Research and Action Center said in a report scheduled for release Wednesday.
The aid still misses millions of needy people, yet President Bush is seeking changes that could undermine the programs' success, said Jim Weill, president of the Washington-based group.
The administration's 2006 budget proposes to restrict access to food stamps for certain families that receive other government assistance, a restriction the group said would throw an estimated 300,000 people off the program.
The group also worries that Bush's proposal to cap discretionary spending for five years would prevent the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC (search), from keeping up with program growth and higher costs.
Overall, Bush is seeking increases in spending on nutrition programs.
Bush proposed a 10 percent increase in the budget for food stamps because the government expects to enroll 2.7 million more people. He also proposed to boost school lunch spending by $550 million to $12.9 billion and spending for WIC by $335 million to $5.6 billion.
"The budget fully funds the expected requirements of these programs," Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns (search) said in releasing the agriculture budget plan on Feb. 7.
The anti-hunger group said more people are getting aid because poorer Americans' incomes have been stagnant despite an improving economy and because the government is doing a better job of outreach.
Still, barely half of those who qualify for food stamps get them, the group said. And of every 100 low-income kids who eat free or reduced-price school lunches, only 41 get breakfast through the government's program. The rate of participation in the summer food program is half that of the breakfast program.
Nationwide, the report found, the rate of participation varies widely from state to state. For example, in the District of Columbia, 52 kids were getting summer meals and snacks for every 100 kids who got subsidized lunches, but in Oklahoma, fewer than five were getting summer meals for every 100 in the school lunch program.
And while the numbers are up, nutrition programs have shrunk in proportion to the economy and the federal budget, the group said. Adjusted for inflation, per-person spending on food stamps fell 17 percent from 1993 to 2003, the group said.