Chicago Danielle Brown stands outside a South Side market at midnight, braving the spring chill for her first chance to buy groceries since her food stamps ran out nearly two weeks ago.
For days, Brown said, she has been turning cans of "whatever we got in the cabinet" into breakfast, lunch and dinner for her children, ages 1 and 3.
"Ain't got no food left, the kids are probably hungry," said Brown, a 23-year-old single mother who relies heavily on her $312 monthly allotment of food stamps - a ration adjusted just once a year, in October.
This is what the skyrocketing cost of food looks like at street level: Poor people whose food stamps don't buy as much as they once did rushing into a store in the dead of night, filling shopping carts with cereal, eggs and milk so their kids can wake up on the first day of the month to a decent meal.
"People with incomes below the poverty threshold are in dire straits because not only are food prices increasing but the food stamps they are receiving have not increased," said Dr. John Cook, an associate professor at Boston University's medical school who has studied the food stamp program, particularly how it affects children.
On the South Side of Chicago, people like Brown wait for the stroke of midnight, when one month gives way to another and brings a new allotment of food stamps.
Dennis Kladis began opening his family owned One Stop Food & Liquors once a month at midnight nine months ago to give desperate families a chance to buy food as soon as possible.
"I'm telling you, by the end of the month they're just dying to get back to the first," said Kladis, who has watched other area stores follow his lead. "Obviously, they are struggling to get through the month."
Jean Daniel, a spokeswoman for the Agriculture Department, which runs the food stamp program, said there is only so much the aid can do.
"Food stamps were designed to be a supplement to the food budget," she said. They "were never intended to be the entire budget."
As prices rise, the number of Americans relying on food stamps has also climbed by 6.1 percent in the past year, increasing from 26.1 million in February 2007 to 27.7 million in February this year. The sputtering economy, persistent unemployment and the mortgage crisis have all contributed to the increase. The Agriculture Department expects the overall number of participants to reach 28 million next year.
For Lynda Wheeler, who receives $281 in food stamps each month, the rhythm of life has been one of shopping for food, running out of food and then turning to churches, food pantries and friends for help. And all the while, she is doing things like cutting milk with water to make it last a bit longer.
"You get it on the first and it runs out by the 14th and 15th," said Wheeler, a single mom who brought her 14-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter shopping at midnight with the Link card, the Illinois version of food stamps.
Because food stamp allotments are adjusted every fall based on the federal food inflation rate, recipients are months away from getting any relief. But even when that relief comes, advocates said, it won't come close to keeping pace with rising costs.
A bare-bones diet
The consumer price index for food rose 5 percent last year, the highest gain in nearly two decades. It is especially grim news for the poor.
Start with milk. Between March 2007 and this year, a gallon of milk jumped from just over $3 a gallon to nearly $3.80, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the same period, eggs climbed from about $1.60 a dozen to $2.20. Bread, chicken and tomatoes are all more expensive than last year.
Just last summer, the maximum food stamp payment - $542 a month for a family of four with a gross annual income of no more than $26,856 - was enough to cover the USDA's "thrifty food plan," a bare-bones diet that meets minimal nutritional needs. Studies show that allotment now falls about $25 short, Cook said.
And just getting to the store is a lot more expensive. Since October, the cost of gas has shot up nationally from $2.70 a gallon to $3.62, according to the Lundberg Survey, a petroleum market research firm.
If the USDA pulls $1.7 billion from a contingency fund of $6 billion this year to support the food stamp program, as it expects to do, that would be the largest withdrawal since $2 billion was pulled out after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
On Thursday, the Senate passed a five-year, $300 billion farm bill that includes $200 billion for nutrition programs such as food stamps and emergency food aid for the needy. Daniel said it was too early to say how that will affect benefits to food stamp recipients, and she knew of no provision in the bill to make the annual adjustment before the fall.
Level of desperation
Diane Doherty, executive director of the Illinois Hunger Coalition, said she's seeing people more frantic for food than ever.
"The level of desperation is just frightening," she said. "People are calling, saying they have no idea what they are going to do."
But even as demand is rising, many food pantries nationwide have been forced to cut back on the amount of food given to individual families because higher fuel costs and commodity prices have sliced into private donations to the pantries.
For now, many of the needy, including many in Kladis' store pushing carts laden with soda pop, bags of cookies and chips - much of it cheaper than healthier food - are doing what they can to stretch their shrinking buying power.
"The bottom line is, a mother trying to feed her kids is not really picky about what she puts in their bellies," said Dan Gibbons, executive director of the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation. "She just wants them full."