The news: The U.S. Census Bureau reported in September that 11.7 million households reported participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, better known as food stamps–”a 19.8 percent increase from the previous year.

Behind the news: The use of food stamps saw an increase of more than 20 percent among Asian and Latino households in Cook County between July 2009 and July 2010, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of the Illinois Department of Human Services data.

African-American and white families, meanwhile, saw modest increases of 7 percent and 13 percent, respectively, during the same period.

“I would look at these numbers and certainly be concerned that the economy isn’t picking up and maybe is getting worse particularly for Asians and Latinos,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an assistant professor who studies children’s health and food consumption at Northwestern University’s Institute for Policy Research.

But Schanzenbach added that the increased participation in the food stamp program is a positive sign that people who need help are getting signed up more effectively–”a fact she attributed to more effective outreach efforts to educate and enroll families in need.

“Outreach programs, which I believe are new, have done a better job for people with children who haven’t been connected to these networks as strongly in the past,” she said.