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For some college grads, food stamps are a lifeline

By Julie Siple, MPR News 91.3 FM

ST. PAUL – The number of food stamp recipients in Minnesota has soared in the economic downtown to more than 520,000, and on the rolls are a growing number of recent college graduates.

Recent graduates remain the exception among food stamp recipients, accounting for only a tiny percentage of the nation’s 46 million users, according to census data analyzed by the Minnesota State Demographic Center.

But they are growing at a faster rate than food stamp users who are their age with less education. Between 2006 and 2010, the number of young college grads in the program more than doubled both in Minnesota and nationally. By 2010, 3.9 percent of U.S. graduates with a bachelor’s degree were receiving food stamps.

Among them is Brooke Holmgren, 22, who has something many young graduates do not – a job. But it’s not the job she imagined she would find after earning a degree in English from St. Catherine University in St. Paul in 2011. She delivers sandwiches for minimum wage.

“In high school, I worked your standard restaurant jobs, and I absolutely hated it,” Holmgren said. “I was like, ‘This is why I’m going to college, so I don’t have to do this,’ you know? But now I am doing this.”

On a recent night Holmgren cooked dinner in an apartment she shares with two roommates. She is known among her friends as the thrifty one. But despite her full-time job and another cleaning houses on the side, money is tight, and often food is the only thing that can go.

“I can’t not pay a portion of my rent or not pay part of my electricity,” she said.

So she used to buy cheap pasta and skip the fresh blueberries. Now Holmgren gets food stamps. The $56 a month in assistance cuts her food bill by about two-thirds, which frees her to buy fruits and vegetables.

Holmgren says she doesn’t feel any shame, but she doesn’t tell everyone.

“My grandma knows, but my mom doesn’t know, and I feel like that’s just the pride thing for me,” Holmgren said. “My mom would probably be like, ‘Oh, you’re better than that.’ I feel like she has that old-school mentality of food support is for losers or for people who don’t work hard enough. I think maybe if she knew, and she knows how hard I work, she’d be like, ‘OK.’ It might change her mind.”

While changes in eligibility account for some of the growth among young graduates like Holmgren, many have been affected by the sour economy.

“We have about 1.5 million new bachelor’s degree recipients every year,” said Carl Van Horn, director of the Heldrich Center for Workforce Development at Rutgers University. “They’re piling up, fighting for the same limited number of job opportunities.”

A recent Rutgers study found just over half of young graduates with bachelor’s degrees are employed full-time. Of those, many are working jobs that do not require a four-year degree. That, says Van Horn, was uncommon in the past.

“It was more the anecdote than the rule that a person who went to college ended up in a job that was not tapping his or her talent,” Van Horn said. “That was unusual. Now to have it that widespread and have large numbers of people graduating with significant debt, not being able to earn enough money to pay off their loans – those are relatively new phenomenon.”

Van Horn says starting salaries for young grads are down 10 percent – and the consequences of graduating into a tough economy can linger.

Some graduates see food stamps as a bridge to a better future.

Astrid Yankosky, 25, graduated from the University of Minnesota honors program in 2010 with an anthropology degree and now teaches refugees as part of AmeriCorps. She receives a small stipend but sees the job as a path to grad school and a career. She gets by with help from $200 a month in food stamps.

Yankosky said she tries to eat well, even on a budget.

“I will buy real food,” Yankosky said. “Not calories to hold me over.”

For her, that means shopping at co-ops and farmers markets, many of which take food stamps. She walks every aisle, looking for deals.

“I am a testament that you can eat healthy on a low budget,” she said. “You have to cook, and gardening doesn’t hurt. But it can be done.”

With her degree, Yankosky knows she’s not the stereotype of a food stamp user but instead an indicator of a trend: More people, across many demographics, need help these days.

“The economy right now is struggling at a point where it’s not (just) the stereotypical people who need government assistance anymore,” she said. “It’s college graduates. It’s people who worked their whole lives and got laid off. Spanning all different social and cultural backgrounds. It’s a different time.”