The number of Minnesotans receiving food stamp subsidies has soared to an all-time high, a sign that many families are facing continued hardship despite signs of economic recovery.

State figures rose from 381,000 recipients in September 2009 to 444,000 last month -- a total that surpasses the entire population of Minneapolis.

The numbers are expected to rise even higher due to federal changes that, as of last week, raised the income threshold for eligibility and waived an asset test.

While need has increased for most of the last decade, the latest spike shows that people have exhausted other options during their struggle to find work, Becky Lentz of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis said.

"People wait and wait and wait," she said. "The desolation of people when they finally sign up is mind-boggling."

Advocates for the needy hope the latest changes to the federally funded food-stamp program, known in Minnesota as Food Support, will make it easier for people to seek assistance before crisis sets in. People previously had to spend down their savings to get below the asset limit of $7,000 (excluding cars).

"People do tend to wait until they've exhausted their resources, and the system kind of encourages them to do that," said Jill Hiebert of Hunger Solutions Minnesota, an advocacy group that promotes Food Support. "With the asset test removed, we're hoping people don't spend down to nothing and become so deep in poverty that it's going to take them a long time to get out."

The income limit has also increased from $28,600 for a family of four to $36,300.

Lorna Roy, 30, counts on the monthly assistance to feed her 13- and 9-year-old sons and one daughter while she earns a medical assistant degree. It won't cover more than two weeks worth of food -- "not with the way my boys eat," she said -- which is why she was at Catholic Charities' food pantry on Franklin Avenue in Minneapolis Friday.

"It works," she said of her hectic means of securing food. "It has to."

Food Support figures surged in 2009 after federal authorities removed a three-month cap on benefits for healthy adults without children. Between that change and the new eligibility rules, the state estimated that monthly rolls would increase by 39,000 people, said Erin Sullivan Sutton, an assistant commissioner for the Minnesota Department of Human Services.

But enrollment has increased by much more: 145,000 people since the start of 2009.

A sluggish recovery in the job market could keep those numbers high for some time because of the slow rate of people leaving the program. Low-wage earners typically lose their jobs at the tip of a recession and then, because of their prolonged unemployment, can't find new jobs until recovery is well underway, said Deborah Schlick of Affirmative Options, an advocacy group for the poor.

"They feel the hurt first," she said, "and the recovery last."

Advocates express surprise that enrollment hasn't been even higher for a program that pays an average of $121 per month per recipient. While the number of recipients has reached an all-time high, the "take-up rate'' hasn't changed much; half of people who qualify for Food Support still don't apply.

State officials expected the so-called new poor -- people who lost their jobs for the first time and hadn't tapped public benefits before -- to sign up. An apply-by-phone option, available since late 2008, would make it easy. But many haven't.

"Traditionally, people don't even go to the food shelves" right away, Hiebert said. "Maybe they were volunteers. Maybe they were donors. Maybe they don't want to be seen there until it becomes a really desperate situation."

Stigma isn't the primary reason, though, why people don't apply for Food Support, according to an April report from Hunger-Free Minnesota, a coalition of local food shelves. Far more people think they aren't eligible, or that the process is difficult, the report found.

Only seven states have a lower take-up rate than Minnesota, the report found. Beyond the social and health care costs of leaving people hungry, advocates argue, the state is losing out financially by not maximizing federal money that Minnesotans can spend on local grocers.

Hennepin County fielded more calls about Food Support last week, but not as many as expected, given the new eligibility limits, said Lisa Groves, who manages the county's Food Support program.

She expects more interest as news spreads. Unemployment benefits, which were extended under federal stimulus legislation, are also running out for people who lost their jobs in the teeth of the recession, she noted. That could push more people to apply as well.

Lorna Roy moved to Minneapolis two years ago after losing her job at a Duluth nursing home. She anticipates a day when she can sustain her family -- when the weekly spaghetti feast comes out of her salary instead of food stamps.

Her frugal habits under Food Support won't change, though, she said. Begging by her kids at the candy counter doesn't pay off now, and won't in the future.

"They know better," she said. "I don't buy that stuff."

Jeremy Olson • 612-673-7744