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TESS VIGELAND: It's hard for most of us to imagine not having enough money for food. But the number of people qualifying for food stamps is up 20 percent over this time last year.
These days they're not actually stamps. The government benefit comes in the form of a plastic debit card. And it goes by the peppy acronym of SNAP, for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." More retailers, including Costco, are working toward accepting the cards. So to see just how far food assistance goes.
We sent Marketplace's Jeff Tyler shopping with one recipient in Southern California.
Jeff Tyler: Buying groceries isn't one-stop shopping for Maribel Diaz. She crisscrosses town to get the most bang for her benefit bucks -- starting here at the farmers' market in Pasadena.
Vendor: Good morning.
Diaz: How have you been?
Diaz: I want to use my EBT card so I can buy some vouchers.
Diaz hands the woman her EBT card. EBT stands for "Electronic Benefit Transfer." The old paper food stamps are out, plastic is in. It looks and works like a debit card.
Diaz: On a monthly basis, they put a certain amount, depending on my income, on my card.
The amount also depends on the size of the family. Diaz is a single mom with three boys.
Diaz: So this month, I got $400. Let's go shopping.
She moves from one stall to the next.
Diaz: Could I get a cabbage?
Vendor: With or without leaves?
Diaz: Oh, with leaves.
Among other things, she buys spinach, beets, oranges and strawberries. Altogether, she spends $28. Then, Diaz loads up her car and drives to East Los Angeles, where she'll do more bargain hunting at a supermarket called Superior Warehouse.
She's been receiving food assistance for about eight years.
Diaz: I was out of state and then I came back. Ever since then, it's been kind of hard to get on my feet, because basically I got here with nothing. Plus, I have three kids. Going to school and not having someone to pick them up, I could basically like only deal with part-time jobs.
She has two part-time jobs -- one with a non-profit called Hunger Action and another at a convention center. The number of hours varies. Because she never knows exactly how much she'll make, Diaz has learned to be a savvy shopper.
She walks into the store and immediately picks up the in-house flier to see what's on sale. She fills her grocery cart with peanut butter, eggs, cereal and yogurt. But she'll wait to buy tomato sauce at the next store.
Diaz: There are some deals that are better here and then some at Food For Less. That's why I shop around at both stores.
Tyler: Now are there any things that you would normally shop for that aren't covered by food stamps?
Diaz: The only thing that I do get that it's not covered is like the detergent. You know, stuff like to go wash. Toilet paper. Napkins.
Cigarettes and liquor aren't covered either. Same goes for pet food.
At the check-out register, anything not covered by the SNAP program gets tallied separately. But all her groceries qualify. Diaz swipes her card.
Even though it looks like a debit card, she says first-timers can feel self-conscious.
Diaz: If you're neighbor sees you at the store, you kind of get embarrassed.
Over time, she says people adjust.
Diaz: Because if you really stop and think about it, it's not only you. It's other people out there using it. But you think that, maybe it's only me.
In fact, 32 million people get help through the SNAP program. And a good number of them have beaten us to the next stop, a few blocks away at the Food For Less.
Diaz can't find the frozen broccoli she's after. The shelves in the frozen section have been picked clean.
Diaz: From the first to the tenth, everybody gets their food stamps. So the markets are run out of a lot of produce. So, normally I know they stock every Wednesday, because I've asked the manager before. So, if I do really need it, I'll be back like Thursday morning.
Most of the food she buys is nutritious, with a few exceptions.
Diaz: I know it's bad, but I have to get some bacon. It was on sale. And I'm going to have some company this weekend. So might as well.
She stocks up on a variety of stuff, including a big jar of tomato sauce. So, how much did she spend at the three markets?
Diaz: Altogether, it adds up to like $230 out of $400.
Tyler: Do you normally spend more than half on the first day?
Diaz: Yeah. It's normal for me to spend $230 to $300. That's what I normally spend on the first day.
And she's not finished. Diaz will stop at two more stores to get cut-price meat and fish. She'll go shopping again in a week or so and use what's left of her monthly assistance.
Diaz: If I run out, I have to go to food banks and get like canned stuff. And there's some churches that you go to and they give you fresh produce.
How often does that happen?
Diaz: This past year, I've gone for six months straight to food banks and to churches because my food stamps were not enough.
Perhaps the acronym SNAP is a better name than food stamps. For many families, the assistance money goes just like...
[Sound of snapping fingers]
In Los Angeles, I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace Money.