The number of families receiving food stamps in Maricopa County has soared 15 percent in the past year and nearly doubled since 2002. Statewide, the figures are much the same, with nearly one in 10 Arizonans on food stamps, giving the state the distinction of having among the fastest-growing rolls in the country.
It doesn't bode well.
An increase in food stamp recipients is considered an early indicator of poverty in a state, and a potential harbinger of enrollment increases in Medicaid and other programs for the needy.
"After unemployment insurance, it's the most responsive to the economy, both on the upswing and the downswing," said Stacy Dean, director of food stamp policy for the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.
"It's a real important indicator of how things are going."
Experts blame the slowing economy for the rise of families on food stamps, with layoffs and climbing food and fuel prices pushing many beyond the tipping point.
More families who were barely making it are finding that they can no longer make ends meet. And, as of January, Arizona's 619,281 recipients represented about two-thirds of those eligible for the federal program.
"The biggest thing is working families who don't have adequate wages or health coverage," said Kathy DiNolfi, vice president of Mesa Community Action Network, which offers emergency food, rent and utility assistance, as well as case management.
"Generally, it's, 'What are we going to pay this month? Are we going to pay rent? Utilities? The kid's health bill? Food?' " she said. "Those families that have to make those decisions have always been there. There's just more of them these days."
At the same time, the lag in annual benefit adjustments for food stamps means recent price increases for milk, orange juice and other staples aren't yet reflected in the monthly allotment that families receive.
Recipients must have incomes below 130 percent of the poverty level to qualify, or less than $2,238 a month for a family of four. Monthly benefits average around $100 per family member.
A single mother of three, Sharon Shreve works part time and studies social work at Mesa Community College. She started receiving food stamps about four months ago, and she finds that, even with bargain shopping and buying meat sparingly, $315 a month only goes so far, especially with a toddler who chugs milk.
"Living paycheck to paycheck, it really does help," she said. "But it doesn't last that long."
The food stamp program isn't intended to be the sole source of food for families, but rather a supplement to income.
Benefit amounts are based on a complicated formula, using deductions, assets and the "thrifty food plan" calculated by the Department of Agriculture and dependent, in part, on the age and gender of people in the household.
In Arizona, more than half of recipients are working and many of the rest are elderly or disabled and living on fixed incomes, according to the state Department of Economic Security, which administers the program.
Food banks increasingly help bridge the gap, offering monthly food boxes at a nominal fee and emergency food boxes. Their numbers are up, too.
"We are seeing people every day who are struggling just to meet their basic needs," said Rita Koppinger, director of Scottsdale's Vista del Camino. The agency offers a range of services, including a state food-stamp eligibility worker on-site.
Koppinger said condominium conversions in Scottsdale have sharply increased housing costs, and payday loan businesses have people borrowing money they can't afford to repay.
The Arizona Community Action Association, which represents local organizations, has a federal grant to publicize food stamps, focusing on rural communities, Spanish-speaking populations and the elderly.
Still, in Arizona about one-third of those eligible don't receive food stamps, which matches the national average.
Some of the barriers include paperwork and the time it takes to apply - an average of 2.5 visits and about five hours. Among other things, applicants must provide six weeks' worth of pay stubs.
Federal rules require that applications are processed within certain time frames - within seven days in an emergency and 30 days otherwise.
State program administrator Marco Liu said the agency is struggling to keep up and, under pressure from advocates, has managed to do so. It takes an average of about three weeks to process applications in nonemergency cases.
"It does concern us that, if the rates continue to increase at the current pace," Liu said, "there will come a time when it's beyond our capacity."