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Food stamp use up locally

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By Leslie Moore

 

The United States recession ended in 2009, according to the U.S. National Bureau of Economic Research, but Kentuckians are still feeling the effects of the 18-month economic downturn five years later.

The number of Kentucky families enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known as food stamps, increased through the recession, said Jason Dunn, director of the Division of Family Support for the Kentucky Cabinet of Health and Family Services.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services, the proportion of Taylor County residents receiving food stamps rose from 13.7 percent in 2007 to 22.3 percent in 2011.

Dunn said the increase in SNAP enrollees peaked at more than 400,000 cases in late 2012 and early 2013.

"During the downturn, our number of cases went really high," he said. "Since then we've gone down a bit."

Still, this figure remains higher than the number of families enrolled in SNAP before the recession began in 2007.

"This is kind of our new normal," Dunn said.

Taylor County residents also utilize other USDA nutrition programs, such as the special supplemental nutrition program for Women, Infants and Children. Ann Stevens, clinical nutritionist for the Lake Cumberland District Health Department, said WIC is a short-term intervention program designed to influence lifetime nutrition and healthy behavior in high-risk populations.

"The Taylor County Health Department provides approximately 950 local residents WIC food benefits," Stevens said.

Angie Freeman, expanded foods & nutrition assistant at the Taylor County Extension Office, teaches low-income families and SNAP recipients to spend wisely by shopping sales, buying in-season produce and buying appropriately to the purpose, such as buying store-brand vegetables to use in salads or casseroles. She said lessons are included to help with meal planning and shopping with a list to help families stretch their food dollars.

"SNAP is intended to be a supplement to the food budget, not the only food dollars," Freeman said. "But with some families, it may be all they have to spend on food."

Last November, a decrease in benefits for SNAP went into effect because of the expiration of benefits implemented in 2009 by the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Since then, Freeman said some of the families she works with have expressed difficulty in making ends meet.

"There are families with no transportation who find it difficult to grocery shop because most of the groceries are on one side of town since Houchens closed," Freeman said. "Even with SNAP benefits, this causes food insufficiency for some due to relying on someone to transport them. They must plan carefully, and sometimes do without fresh food because they cannot get it when they need it."

According to a report from The Daily Yonder, a rurally focused multi-media source, areas like Taylor County that are located outside metropolitan areas tend to have a higher percentage of their population receiving SNAP benefits. The report said this is because incomes are generally lower in metropolitan counties.

Dunn said this isn't surprising, and that a county's number of SNAP recipients is correlated to its poverty level.

"In Kentucky, we tend to have more poverty in rural areas and mountain areas than in other parts of the state," he said.

As of April, there were 2,545 households receiving SNAP benefits in Taylor County. Statewide, 398,160 households received SNAP benefits. Figures for May aren't yet available.

An increase in SNAP recipients also means a boost to local economies. The USDA reports that each $5 in SNAP benefits generates $9.20 in spending.

SNAP and WIC dollars also have a big impact on local grocery stores.

Tommy Blackwell, co-manager of Kroger on East Broadway, said SNAP and WIC benefits "are a big part of our business."

"They allow a lot of our customers to purchase very necessary, essential items that they otherwise may not be able to purchase," he said.

According to Blackwell, Kroger's participation in the SNAP and WIC programs is a good combination for the customer and the store.

"We value those customers because of that customer base and we know it goes hand in hand with being able to purchase other merchandise we have at the store outside of the WIC and SNAP programs," Blackwell said.

A manager for Kroger in Green River Plaza referred comment for this story to the corporate office, which didn't return a phone call before press time. A manager for Price Less and a spokesperson for Walmart's corporate office also couldn't be reached before press time.

Dunn said SNAP recipients are encouraged to use the state's SNAP customer service website at snapfoodbenefits.chfs.ky.gov to access their benefits and sign up to receive alerts in the event of changes.

For more information about the SNAP education through the extension office, call (270) 465-4511.