By Justin Juozapavicius & Michelle Roberts, Associated Press Writers
SAN ANTONIO (AP) — When Amanda Vaca's husband lost his job, the couple took stock of their finances and drew a startling conclusion: They could not afford to feed their four young children.
So Vaca filled out an application for food stamps. Then, the wait began. A month passed, then two. In some weeks, the food simply ran out.
"There was several occasions where I didn't have breakfast to cook them or all there was was noodles," said Vaca, a customer-service representative in Fort Worth who got laid off shortly after her husband. They waited three months for assistance.
The recession has landed millions of hungry families in similar straits, forcing them to endure long waits for help buying basic groceries. A review by The Associated Press found that dozens of food-stamp programs in 39 states left at least a quarter of applicants waiting weeks or months for food aid, some in areas that were not particularly hard hit by the economic downturn.
Federal law requires applications for food stamps to be reviewed within 30 days of being filed, and even faster for the poorest families. Failure to do so can subject agencies to federal sanctions and lawsuits, but individual families are largely at the mercy of their local administrators.
Among the excuses for the delays were overburdened bureaucracies, staff shortages or program rules. But that makes little difference to parents with hungry children.
"It got to that point where there was nothing. It was scary. It was very, very stressful," Vaca said. "We went to churches to get food, food banks or whatever. I was always searching for places to get food."
In fiscal 2009, Texas left about a third of its applicants waiting more than 30 days for food assistance, the worst among states examined by the AP, even though Texas was spared the brunt of the recession.
In Rhode Island, nearly a quarter of new applications were delayed. In Florida, Colorado and Nevada, about one-fifth of applications were processed late.
In the months since those problems arose, some agencies have improved their processing systems, but application delays persist in many places.