San Diego County has been increasing the number of people signed up to receive food stamps, but it still ranks lowest in the country for enrolling people who are eligible for the federal program, according to a new report released Wednesday.

San Diego County’s food stamp participation rate was 35 percent in 2007, the lowest rate of any of the 24 urban areas studied in an annual report by the D.C.-based Food Research Action Center.

The county’s 35 percent rate was a significant increase from 29 percent in last year’s report, but San Diego still lags far behind the next lowest areas, Denver and Houston, with rates of 43 percent and 46 percent, respectively.

Los Angeles County’s participation rate was 50 percent. Philadelphia had the highest number of enrollees — 93 percent — and Detroit was a close second with 92 percent.

The county had 99,039 individuals enrolled in its food stamps program as of December 2007. Another estimated 185,834 were eligible and not enrolled. The county lost out on about $110 million in federal dollars that would have been spent in local grocery stores that year, the report calculated.

San Diego’s participation rate has been slowly growing for a few years, but it has most often been the lowest-ranked city in the survey. The report lags by two years.

In the center’s 2005 report, San Diego’s participation rate was 26 percent. The only city that was lower then was Oakland, with 23 percent. (In Wednesday’s report, Oakland came in with a much higher participation rate — 60 percent.)

In the 2006 report, San Diego enrolled 27 percent of the eligible households in the program.

In the 2007 report, the county reached 31 percent enrolled. The ratio slipped in 2008 to 29 percent. That’s the number Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger cited when he was here in April to draw attention to a variety of state and federal benefits that may help families get through the recession.

In April, the county passed a new plan that staff said would increase participation in the food stamps program, allow for more outreach and education and streamline the process for applying for the benefit.

Correction: In the original version of this post, I incorrectly listed Boston as the urban area with the highest participation ratio among the 24 areas studied, instead of Philadelphia. The post has been corrected to reflect that. I’m sorry for the error.

KELLY BENNETT

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