A still-struggling economy, rising food prices and a high unemployment rate boosted the numbers of Carbon County folks asking the state for help this year.

Statewide, applications for food help and cash assistance rose, according to state Department of Public Welfare figures comparing November 2009 with November 2010.

High on the list are people in Carbon, Schuylkill and Monroe counties, where unemployment rates outpace the state average.

The Carbon County Action Committee for Human Services is among those agencies trying to keep the desperate afloat.

"I know the need is very great," said fiscal manager Marveline Costenbader. "We're getting a lot of calls." More people are asking the agency for help in finding food and fuel to heat their homes, she said. CAC has been referring people to area food banks. Heat is another pressing matter.

"We have people who are calling this (Thursday) morning, who are completely out (of fuel). But we can't begin taking applications for (Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program crisis grants) until Monday," she said.

The spike in need reflects a confluence of lost jobs and rising food prices.

According to the state Department of Labor and Industry, Carbon County's unemployment rate in November (the most recent data available) was 10.9 percent, Schuylkill's was 10.2 percent and Monroe's was 9.8 percent. All three are higher than the state rate of 8.6 percent.

At the same time, the prices of basic foods like milk, eggs and meat are creeping steadily upward. Dairy prices rose 3.8 percent between November 2009 and November 2010, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Beef prices were up 6.2 percent and eggs 4.7 percent.

The number of Carbon County households applying for nutrition assistance, formerly known as food stamps, rose 12.5 percent, from 3,014 in November 2009 to 3,392 in November of this year, said state Department of Public Welfare spokesman Michael Race.

In Schuylkill, the numbers jumped 16 percent, from 8,391 households to 9,734 this year. Monroe County's numbers went up 16.56 percent, from 7,904 households in November of last year to 9,213 households this year.

All three counties trumped the state level: Applications for nutrition assistance were up 12.9 percent statewide, from 709,073 households in November 2009 to 800,774 this year.

Further, more people in Schuylkill and Monroe counties are asking for cash assistance, too, although applications from Carbon County applications for cash assistance dipped slightly, from 485 in November 2009 to 474 this year, according to DPW.

Schuylkill's numbers rose 4.7 percent, from 1,636 in November 2009 to 1,713 this year, while Monroe County saw its applications rise 8.8 percent, from 1,538 to 1,674.

Statewide, applications for cash assistance rose 2.9 percent, from 282,756 in November 2009 to 291,040 this year.

It's tough to say whether applications for LIHEAP will exceed last year's numbers. LIHEAP applications are accepted from Nov. 1, 2010, through March 31, 2011, so it's too soon to tally totals, although the numbers of those eligible have increased due to a rise in the income ceiling from 150 percent to 160 percent of the federal poverty level.

For example, a family of four can have an income of $35,280 and still qualify for fuel assistance.

The state projects the numbers of households that might be eligible to apply for LIHEAP this season to rise from the 434,000 projected last season to 533,376 this season, Race said.

Last season, 2,870 Carbon County households received cash grants from LIHEAP; an additional 1,310 received crisis grants.

As of Dec. 23 of this season, 2,050 households in the county have received cash grants, according to DPW. The crisis grant program does not open until January.

In Schuylkill County, 7,746 households received cash grants for heating last season, while another 3,881 received crisis grants.

In Monroe County, 4,543 households received cash grants for heating last season, while another 1,348 received crisis grants.

As of Dec. 23, 5,945 Schuylkill households had applied for cash grants; 3,083 had applied from Monroe County.

Those who do ask for help with food and heat need not be ashamed.

"We hope no one would be deterred from seeking help simply because of an ill-informed stigma associated with public assistance," Race said. "The fact is, one in six Pennsylvanians – ranging from children to the elderly – already receive some type of assistance through the Department of Public Welfare, so odds are most of us already have a friend, relative or neighbor who relies on DPW for some level of support, be it medical assistance, home heating aid or other types of help."