Outside the social security office in a rundown area of Washington, Jamie Cremeans, 31, sits with her boyfriend smoking a cigarette, waiting to pick up the benefits that keep them afloat.

Her boyfriend, who is partially blind, has been receiving disability benefits for years, but Ms Cremeans is new to this. Like millions of other Americans buffeted by the financial crisis, she is receiving food stamps for the first time, now part of a multibillion-dollar benefit recently renamed the supplemental nutrition assistance programme, or Snap.

Ms Cremeans started to use the programme when the couple moved from southern California to Washington to find work after she, like thousands of other middle-class Americans, lost her job in the recession. “We moved … because there’s no work there,” she says. “I just wanna work; I probably apply for five jobs a week.”

According to recently released figures, 44.1m Americans are now being fed in some part by Snap, the highest number in the 50-year history of the programme. As the US continues to reel from stubbornly high unemployment, the number of US citizens using the programme has ballooned over the past three years by almost 17m, an increase of 61 per cent.

In the rancorous battle over spending cuts , the programme, which cost $69bn in 2010, has come out unscathed. This is not simply due to growing hardship. “The reason it enjoys [political] support is that it benefits growers [and] ranchers,” says Kevin Concannon, secretary for food and nutrition at the Department of Agriculture, which administers the programme. It supports areas of the country that are more Republican than Democrat, he adds.

In addition, the benefits of Snap to communities where the money is spent has helped the programme escape the eye of deficit hawks. The Department of Agriculture estimates that every $5 of Snap money spent in the local community generates $9 of economic activity. Very few people can afford to save their food stamps.

At current levels only two-thirds of those eligible for Snap enrol, meaning 59m Americans qualify for the benefit, or about a fifth of the population. Among minorities that is even higher. In 2006, the last year for which there are records, 44 per cent of Snap household heads reported their race as Hispanic or African American, while they comprise 29 per cent of the general population.

“As Americans, we like to think highly of the good things in our country. We struggle with acknowledging that in our midst, there are people who go hungry,” says Mr Concannon.

The average Snap allowance is $130 to cover a month of food, an amount Ms Cremeans says is insufficient. “We never have enough food, sometimes we just go without, but there are a lot of different programmes, lots of churches help out with food.” The programme is available to anyone under the government’s designated poverty level who does not have more than $2,000 in liquid assets or own a home. It is dispensed through a debit card which is topped up automatically at the beginning of the month.

The financial crisis has forced many middle-class families on to the programme and sparked a rethink among food companies previously against accepting Snap payments. Before the financial crisis, for example, warehouse stores Costco and BJ’s were not part of the programme but have since joined up. Costco was forced to make its new store in New York City Snap-friendly after realising its initial mistake in opting out.

But many complain that even with these new stores taking part, Snap entitlements are not enough to sustain healthy nutritional levels. “All the evidence is that it’s not enough for a healthy diet, it’s enough to keep people from starving, to keep people from very severe malnutrition,” says Jim Weill, president of the Food Research and Action Center, which does public research and advocacy.

It is not just a lack of funds that can cause malnutrition for those enrolled in Snap.

“They may live in something called a ‘food desert’ where there’s a shortage of healthy food, and if it’s available, it’s often at a price,” says Alexandra Ashbrook, outreach co-ordinator of DC Hunger Solutions, which helps people process the Snap claims.

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