It's a sign of how far the state's economy has fallen. In the past three years, the amount of money used to buy groceries with food stamps has almost tripled statewide, and the trend is even more severe in the Newburyport area.
Statewide use of food stamps is up 233 percent from 2006 to 2009. In that period, Vermette's Super Market and Stop & Shop in Amesbury have seen a 287 and 293 percent increase respectively in the amount of redeemed food stamps. Market Basket of Newburyport's numbers have shot up 358 percent, according to information released by the state to Muckrock.com, a citizen-run website that files Freedom of Information Act requests with the government and publishes what they find.
"A lot of people think that in Newburyport we don't have problems like that, but every community does. The need is there and it's very scary," said Eleanor Turke of Pennies for Poverty: 2 Cents 4 Change. While not directly involved in aid, Pennies for Poverty funds grants for local service organizations that help those in need. Turke said the local need is more than they can keep up with and continues to grow.
Representatives of local service organizations say they aren't surprised, as the need is great and growing all the time.
"I've been here since April of 2009, and in that time, I've seen the patronage at our food pantry double; I've seen the number of applicants for food stamps almost double. The need just continues to grow," said Diane Halloran of Community Action in Amesbury.
Halloran said the organization is averaging about five individuals a week who come to them seeking help in filling out the application for food stamps, both people new to the process and those who have done it before and find themselves in need once again.
There is no typical face of need, Halloran said.
"It's a mixed bag. We see people who never thought they'd need this, but they are trying to get by and need that extra support. We see lawyers, businessmen and women."
Tiffany Nigro, Pettengill House assistant director, said her organization is seeing much of the same. Nigro said that with so much of an increase, she and her staff are simply doing all that they can to make the process as painless as possible for those that need some help making ends meet.
"We try to make it all run smoothly by providing the necessary education for a positive experience. We've seen people go from donor to recipient. There's no judgment, we simply focus on case management and getting them the help they need," Nigro said.
Nigro said there's little mystery as to why the numbers have shot up like they have. She points to local unemployment rates as the likely cause for this area's alarming increase. The economy is taking its time to turn around, leaving many people out of work and unable to provide. Many are left to choose between paying for heating oil, gas for the car and food for their families, she said. With such a drain on expenses, people are turning to state agencies, like the Department of Transitional Assistance that handles food stamps, for help.
"There's your increase right there — just look at the economy. The middle class is losing jobs, leaving people in need," Halloran said.
The numbers for the fiscal year of 2010 — July 1, 2009 to June 30, 2010 — provide little comfort.
More than $600,000 worth of food stamps have been redeemed at Amesbury's Stop & Shop. Vermette's has seen a little less than a quarter of that and Newburyport's Market Basket has processed more than a million dollars in food stamp payments.
"It just keep growing," said the Newburyport Salvation Army's director of Social Ministry, Donna Sylvester. "More and more people are needing more and more help. They come to our pantry for the necessities they can't buy with food stamps, like toiletries, aspirin, diapers. We're seeing an overlap in services, something we didn't see as much of before. I wish I could say I see it getting better, but it's not. It's getting worse."
Sylvester said in the past few years since the economy crashed, she's seen the divide growing between those on the top and those on the bottom.
"They say the economy is getting better, but not for the people we help. The working class seems to be slipping. It's getting harder and harder for them," she said.
Stop & Shop, Amesbury$147,169$431,854+293%
Market Basket, Newburyport$207,059$740,856+358%