Reach out for help
While the safety net is small, there are public and private programs that can help families through difficult times.
Free lunch programs may be available for school-age children. In some states, these programs are available even during summer break, and can provide at least one nutritious meal to kids each day.
Food stamps are another option. The income cap for food stamps varies by state and by family size, but a record 32.5 million people are now receiving the assistance. Monthly benefits range between $16 to $588, with the average is about $111. To find out if you're eligible, visit the U.S. Department of Agriculture Web site at www.fns.usda.gov/FSP/ or call 1-800-221-5689.
Those unwilling to accept donated food from food pantries may find low-cost food assistance programs like Angel Food Ministries or the SHARE Food Network easier. The programs, which have no eligibility requirements, offer boxes of groceries, including meat and vegetables, for half or less what it would cost in a grocery store. Distribution is done through host sites, typically churches and community centers. Call 1-888-819-3745 or visit www.angelfoodministries.com for more details on Angel Food. SHARE, a smaller network, has sites scattered from coast to coast, but no central office. Links to other programs can be found at the Washington, D.C., affiliate's site, www.sharedc.org, or call 1-800-21-SHARE.
Health care help
Help with prescription drugs and other health care costs may be available through state or charitable programs. NeedyMeds.org, a private charitable group, and pparx.org, which is funded by pharmaceutical companies, can help with drug costs. State government Web sites are good places to start looking for low-cost health insurance programs, particularly for children.
Military veterans who did not qualify for health care from the Veterans Administration when they were working may now find they meet hardship requirements. Details are available at www.va.gov or by calling 1-877-222-8387.
Some insurance companies offer lower-cost, short-term health insurance plans that last for one to six months, and are designed to provide a bridge between longer term plans, like those offered by employers. The plans typically have deductibles of about $2,500 to $5,000, said Ellen Laden, a spokeswoman for UnitedHealthcare's individual business. They cover major medical costs, and some cover doctor visits, prescription drugs and preventive care, but consumers must shop around. And they have to reapply for the coverage each time their short-term plan expires.