Undated -- As the economy weakens, states and the federal government are trying to help more people qualify for food stamps.
Since Oct. 1, new federal rules make it easier for households with income from combat pay, retirement accounts or education savings to be eligible. The rules are part of the 2008 Farm Bill, which changed the name of the food stamp program to SNAP, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
"This is a nutrition program, not a welfare program," says Jean Daniel, spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), noting that half the 29 million Americans who receive aid are children. SNAP serves one of every five of the nation's kids, who are also eligible for free or reduced-price school meals.
Some states are going further to expand eligibility. Last month, California enacted a bill that will allow low-income people to keep some savings and still qualify for food aid. At least four other states - Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Vermont - similarly eased the asset test this year.
"People won't have to sink to ground zero to get help," says Paul Fraunholtz, a deputy director in Ohio's Department of Job and Family Services.
The U.S. government pays for the benefit, and states cover half the cost of administering the program, which began in 1961.
SNAP: Find out more about food aid eligibility
States are allowed to adjust eligibility rules, and more are doing so. As of Oct. 1, Washington state allowed people with slightly higher incomes, up to $42,400 for a family of four, to qualify. New York began giving energy aid to more low-income renters, because receiving such aid increases their monthly food stamp benefit.
"States are looking for new ways to support working families," says Stacy Dean, director of food assistance policy at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, which studies policies that affect low- and moderate-income people. She says more states, faced with tight budgets, are making changes this year to increase federal food aid.
Dean says the changes will increase participation but job layoffs will do far more to add people to the program. She says states and the USDA are encouraging eligible people to seek benefits. Currently, two-thirds of them do.
"This is not your father's food stamp program," says Heidi Tringe, policy adviser to Vermont's Republican Gov. Jim Douglas. Recipients no longer get vouchers; they get debit cards. She says many people are worried about food and energy bills this winter, so expanding food aid is "the right thing to do."
YOUR TAKE: What do you think of the nations food stamp program?