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Food stamps on the rise

Okanogan County saw need boom during recession

— Nearly a quarter of all Okanogan County residents were on food stamps at the height of the recent recession in 2011.

According to recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services statistics, the percentage of residents receiving food stamps hit a high of 24.6 percent in 2011, an increase of 8.7 percent since 2007.

That’s more than 8 percent higher than the state average of 16.1 percent, statistics show. Nationally, 14.8 percent of residents were on food stamps.

Rural areas tended to have a higher percentage of food stamp recipients, federal officials said, because incomes are generally lower.

The inflation-adjusted median household income in Okanogan County in 2011 was $40,061, compared to the state median of $58,840, federal statistics show. Nationally, median household income was $52,306 in 2011.

In 2011, residents of Okanogan County received a combined $17,725,197 in food stamp benefits, also referred to as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.

Participants spent nearly all their food stamps within one month of receipt, according to a study by University of New Hampshire Carsey Institute.

Grocers say they feel the impact of nutrition programs, including the Women, Infants and Children program.

“Without SNAP and WIC, we wouldn’t be able to make it,” wrote the owner of the Mill City Market in Mill City, Ore., in a survey of rural grocers conducted by the Oregon Food Bank and Kansas State University Rural Grocery Initiative.

Owners know they have to stock the shelves to prepare for more business when benefits hit the streets, said David Procter with the Rural Grocery Initiative.

It’s not just the mom-and-pop stores that see a bump from food-stamp spending.

Walmart reported in a recent Securities and Exchange Commission filing that a decrease in food stamp benefits last year could affect the retail giant’s bottom line.

Average benefits nationally fell about $30 a month per family in November after a temporary increase that was part of the 2009 economic stimulus package, officials said. More cuts are on the way.

Congress has agreed to trim about $8 billion from nutrition programs over the next decade. Backers of the cuts said the program had expanded too much in recent years and was creating too much reliance on government assistance.

Food stamp expenditures increased 135 percent between 2007 and 2011.

As benefits are slashed, agencies such as the Okanogan County Community Action Council have reported visits to area food banks have doubled, with about 2,200 new households served in Okanogan and Omak last year.

U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, backed a measure that would have removed funding from the farm bill entirely.

“While (the food stamp program) is an important part of our safety net, our overriding goal should be to help our citizens with the education and skills they need to get back on their feet so that they can provide for themselves and their families,” Cantor said.

Food stamps have been part of the farm bill for 50 years.

The legislation’s combination of farming and nutrition programs has helped ensure the bill receives broad backing from rural and more urban groups.

The story was reprinted from The Daily Yonder with permission. The Daily Yonder is an independent rural news site published by the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Rural Strategies.

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