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Fla. Food-Stamp Prospects Face Wrenching Choices

Fort Pierce, Fla. — A good recruiter needs to be liked, so Dillie Nerios filled gift bags with dog toys for the dog people and cat food for the cat people. She packed crates of cookies, croissants, vegetables and fresh fruit. She curled her hair and painted her nails fluorescent pink. “A happy, it’s-all-good look,” she said, checking her reflection in the rearview mirror. Then she drove along the Florida coast to sign people up for food stamps.

Her destination on a recent morning was a 55-and-over community in central Florida, where single-wide trailers surround a parched golf course. On the drive, Nerios, 56, reviewed techniques she had learned for connecting with some of Florida’s most desperate senior citizens during two years on the job. Touch a shoulder. Hold eye contact. Listen for as long as it takes. “Some seniors haven’t had anyone to talk to in some time,” one of the state-issued training manuals reads. “Make each person feel like the only one who matters.”

In fact, it is Nerios’ job to enroll at least 150 seniors to receive food stamps each month, a quota she usually exceeds. Alleviate hunger, lessen poverty: These are the primary goals of her work. But the job also has a second and more controversial purpose for cash-strapped Florida, where increasing food-stamp enrollment has become a means of economic growth, bringing almost $6 billion each year into the state. The money helps to sustain communities, grocery stores and food producers. It also adds to rising federal entitlement spending and the U.S. debt.

Nerios prefers to think of her job in more simple terms: “Help is available,” she tells hundreds of seniors each week. “You deserve it. So, yes or no?”

In Florida and everywhere else, the answer in 2013 is almost always yes. A record 47 million Americans now rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, available for people with annual incomes below about $15,000. The program grew during the economic collapse because 10 million more Americans dropped into poverty. It has continued to expand four years into the recovery because state governments and their partner organizations have become active promoters, creating official “SNAP outreach plans” and hiring hundreds of recruiters like Nerios.

A decade ago, only about half of eligible Americans chose to sign up for food stamps. Now that number is 75 percent.

Rhode Island hosts SNAP-themed bingo games for the elderly. Alabama hands out fliers that read: “Be a patriot. Bring your food stamp money home.” Three states in the Midwest throw food-stamp parties where new recipients sign up en masse.

On the Treasure Coast of Florida, the official outreach plan is mostly just Nerios, who works for a local food bank that is funded in part by the state. She roams four counties of sandbars and barrier islands in her Ford Escape, with an audio Bible in the CD player and a windshield sticker that reads “Faith, Hope and Love.” She distributes hundreds of fliers each week, giving out her personal cellphone number and helping seniors submit SNAP applications on her laptop.

On this particular morning, Nerios pulled into the Spanish Lakes retirement community near Port St. Lucie, Fla., and set up a display table in front of the senior center. She advertised her visit weeks in advance, but she can never predict how many people will come. Some events draw hundreds; others only a dozen. Her hope was to attract a crowd with giveaways of pet toys and hundreds of pounds of food, which she stacked high . “What person in need doesn’t want food that’s immediate and free?” she said.

She watched as a few golf carts and motorized scooters drove toward her on a road lined with palm trees, passing Spanish Lakes signs that read “We Love Living Here!” and “Great Lifestyle!” The first seniors grabbed giveaway boxes and went home to tell their friends, who told more friends, until 40 people had formed at Nerios’ table.

A husband and wife, just done with nine holes of golf, clubs still on their cart. An 84-year-old woman on her bicycle, teetering away with one hand on the handlebars and a case of applesauce under her other arm.

A Korean War veteran on oxygen who mostly wanted to talk, so Nerios listened: 32 years in the military, a sergeant major, Germany, Iron Curtain, medals and awards. “A hell of a life,” the veteran said. “So if I signed up, what would I tell my wife?”

“Tell her you’re an American and this is your benefit,” Nerios said, pulling him away from the crowd, so he could write the 26th name of the day on her SNAP sign-up sheet.

She distributed food and SNAP brochures for three hours. “Take what you need,” she said, again and again, until the fruit started to sweat and the vegetables wilted in the late-morning heat. Just as she prepared to leave, a car pulled into the senior center and a man with a gray mustache and a tattered T-shirt opened the driver-side door. He had seen the giveaway boxes earlier in the morning but waited to return until the crowd thinned. He had just moved to Spanish Lakes. He had never taken giveaways. He looked at the boxes but stayed near his car.

“Sir, can I help?” Nerios asked. She brought over some food. She gave him her business card and a few brochures about SNAP.

“I don’t want to be another person depending on the government,” he said.

“How about being another person getting the help you deserve?” she said.

Did he deserve it, though? Lonnie Briglia, 60, drove back to his Spanish Lakes mobile home with the recruiter’s pamphlets and thought about that. He wasn’t so sure.

Wasn’t it his fault that he had flushed 40 years of savings into a bad investment, buying a fleet of delivery trucks just as the economy crashed? Wasn’t it his fault that he and his wife, Celeste, had missed mortgage payments on the house where they raised five kids, forcing the bank to foreclose in 2012? Wasn’t it his fault the only place they could afford was an abandoned mobile home in Spanish Lakes, bought for the entirety of their savings, $750 in cash?

“We made horrible mistakes,” he said. “We dug the hole. We should dig ourselves out.”

Now he walked into their mobile home and set the SNAP brochures on the kitchen table. They had moved in three months before, and it had taken all of that time for them to make the place livable. They patched holes in the ceiling. They fixed the plumbing and rewired the electricity. They gave away most of their belongings to the kids — “like we died and executed the will,” he said. They decorated the walls of the mobile home with memories of a different life: photos of Lonnie in his old New Jersey police officer uniform, or in Germany for a manufacturing job that paid $25 an hour, or on vacation in their old pop-up camper.

A few weeks after they moved in, some of their 11 grandchildren had come over to visit. One of them, a 9-year-old girl, had looked around the mobile home and then turned to her grandparents on the verge of tears: “Grampy, this place is junky,” she had said. He had smiled and told her that it was OK, because Spanish Lakes had a community pool, and now he could go swimming whenever he liked.

Only later, alone with Celeste, had he said what he really thought: “A damn sky dive. That’s our life. How does anyone fall this far, this fast?”

He sat in a sweltering home with no air conditioning and a refrigerator bought on layaway, which was mostly empty except for the “experienced” vegetables they sometimes bought at a discount grocery store to cook down and freeze for later. He had known a handful of people who depended on the government: former co-workers who exaggerated injuries to get temporary disability; homeless people in the Fort Pierce park where he had taken the kids each week when they were young to hand out homemade peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, even though he suspected some of those homeless were drug addicts who spent their Social Security payments on crack.

“Makers and takers,” Lonnie had told the kids then, explaining that the world divided into two categories. The Briglias were makers.

Now three of those kids worked in law enforcement and two were in management. One of them, the oldest, was on his way to visit Spanish Lakes, driving down at this very moment from Valdosta, Ga., with his wife and two kids. Lonnie placed the SNAP brochures in a drawer and turned on a fan to cool the mobile home.

His son arrived, and they went out to dinner. Lonnie tried to pay with a credit card, but his son wouldn’t let him. Then, before leaving for Valdosta, the son gave his parents an air conditioner, bought for $400. Lonnie started to protest.

“Please,” his son said. “You need it. It’s OK to take a little help.”