Faced with layoffs and foreclosures, the number of food stamps recipients in the Rogue Valley climbed to record levels in January, with Medford showing a 13.5 percent increase compared with a year ago. Ashland climbed 8.7 percent and Grants Pass was up 20.7 percent.

Faced with layoffs and foreclosures, the number of food stamps recipients in the Rogue Valley climbed to record levels in January, with Medford showing a 13.5 percent increase compared with a year ago. Ashland climbed 8.7 percent and Grants Pass was up 20.7 percent.

For the Jackson-Josephine county region, the increase was 19.3 percent above a year ago, with more than 22,000 residents in the two counties getting food-stamp assistance.

The state Department of Human Services also reported cash assistance to needy families for Jackson and Josephine counties increased 23.2 percent over a year ago.

"We've never seen this before," said DHS spokeswoman Lauri Stewart. "These are record numbers. It comes from the largest unemployment we've seen since World War II. We're struggling, but we hope we get people what they need."

Food stamps, which now come as debit cards called Oregon Trail cards, were in use by about every third person Thursday at Shop N Kart in Ashland.

"Life would be a lot harder without being on the trail (food card)," said Gabe Granach, an 18-year-old customer at the store. "I eat much better. Before the card, I used to eat the cheapest produce I could find."

Granach, who said he has been unemployed since December and is looking for work, gets $185 a month on his card.

"It's very valuable. I can now eat whatever I want that's healthy," said Matthew Bianca, 21, a landscaper and firewood-cutter who gets $176 a month on his card.

To be eligible for the Oregon Trail card, applicants must be below 185 percent of the federal poverty line, which is $3,400 a month for a family of four, $2,247 for two people and $1,670 for one person, said Stewart.

An Ashland woman, whose husband has early onset Alzheimer's at age 58, said that without the $258 a month on their food card, "We'd be really hungry."

The couple was making $60,000 annually three years ago, but that has nose-dived. She said with her income as a caregiver and his Social Security disability payments, they now get by on $12,000 a year. She asked not to be identified.

The woman engaged in a lively checkout line discussion with a man who said food stamps are a "lifestyle option" for many Ashland residents.

A laid-off Medford city worker — whose husband also has been laid off, from construction work in his case — said they get $463 a month on their food card for a family of four.

"It would be really difficult without it," she said, also asking not to be identified. "It would be totally hard. We'd be going to food banks."

The state, which administers the federal money for food cards, released numbers showing 16,319 Medford residents use them. Ashland has 2,705 and Grants Pass listed 15,126. For the Jackson-Josephine region, the January total was 22,269.

Oregon residents may apply for food cards by printing the application from www.oregonhelps.org and taking it, along with proof of residency and citizenship, to DHS offices at 800 Cardley Ave., Medford or 1658 Ashland St, Ashland.

Southern Oregon was not alone in the misery: The highest demand statewide for cash assistance, called Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, was in the multi-county regions around Portland and Salem.

"These increases are particularly stunning when considering cash assistance is available only to families with children and only to people who have very few assets and very low income," according to a news release from Stewart.

Washington County posted a 36 percent jump in cash assistance.

"We're seeing a lot of people who have never walked through that door before," Joe Lopez, of DHS in Washington County, said in a news release. "They're scared. Almost all these people are homeowners in foreclosure, or people faced with eviction notices. They've already spent all their savings. It's scary to think about. Where will they go?"

The biggest spikes in food cards were Central Oregon, the north coast and the Rogue Valley, in that order, according to a DHS news release.

The statewide increase in cash assistance was 18.9 percent. Statewide, food card demand was up 17 percent from a year ago.

Stewart said DHS plans to hire 48 caseworkers before July 1 to help with the increased processing demand.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.