Five-year-old Alaina tugged on her mother’s arm at the grocery store.
“What is that?” she asked, pointing to a glass full of coins to benefit a local charity.
“People make it sound like living on welfare is luxurious. It’s not — it’s miserable. Almost everybody who’s on food stamps would get off if they could.”
“That’s for the less fortunate,” Shasta Gibson, 28, of Brunswick, recalled telling her daughter.
Alaina thought for a moment before looking intently at her mother.
“Can we put some money in there?” she said.
Gibson emptied her pockets of coins for the jar.
“I’ve taught my daughter to give back,” she said.
That’s only fair, she said, because her family receives monthly aid from the county’s food assistance program — better known as food stamps.
Gibson, a single mother of two, said she needs help putting food on the table because she can’t count on a steady income from her job as an in-home health care aide.
“I could have five clients one week and none the next,” she said. “It can be very difficult.”
The Gibson family isn’t alone.
As of August, the latest figures available, 11,461 Medina County residents were receiving food assistance — four times more than in 2002.
Mead Wilkins, director of Medina County Job and Family Services, said the nation’s weakened economy is to blame.
Numbers tell the story. The county’s poverty rate doubled from 1999 to 2011, while the median household income dropped 21 percent to $59,572.
When people lost their jobs, Wilkins said, many of them had homes, cars and children. With little or no income, some of these families were forced to do the unthinkable — to apply for food stamps.
In order to qualify for food stamps, a household of four must make less than $29,965.
Wilkins said the amount of assistance depends on shelter costs and family size.
The average county resident on food stamps in August received $132.27 a month — $4.41 per day.
“You literally couldn’t go to McDonald’s for one meal on that money,” Wilkins said.
Job and Family Services sees an average of 33 food-assistance applications daily.
Wilkins said feelings of shame and embarrassment are common among those who come to Job and Family Services. He said 40 percent of eligible people don’t get food stamps.
“It’s unfair to make assumptions about these people without knowing the facts,” he said. “There are lots of misunderstandings, stereotypes and assumptions, but those are erroneous.”
A 40-year-old Medina woman cited a more powerful reason for asking that her name not be published: She feared her 12-year-old daughter would be picked on in school.
She said only two close friends know she is getting food stamps.
“I did not want to go to welfare,” she said. “I felt that was degrading, but I had no other choice.”
Needing help was a new experience, she said. She said she was laid off from her $40,000-a-year job at a bank in 2008.
After months of job-searching, she found a secretarial position, but was laid off again six months later.
“I haven’t had a job in almost four years,” she said.
She said she’d be willing to work for minimum wage, but is told she is overqualified for those jobs.
Wilkins acknowledged that some people try to scam the system. But he said they are a tiny minority.
“People make it sound like living on welfare is luxurious,” he said. “It’s not — it’s miserable.
“Almost everybody who’s on food stamps would get off if they could.”