Friday, October 31, 2008

Food Stamps and Budgets

One of the annual rituals of a nonprofit director is to develop the budget for the organization every year. This year I’m anticipating lean times and planning accordingly.

Budget cuts are coming at a time when more and more people are seeking food assistance. Most families are feeling squeezed right now. Low-income families are hit the hardest when costs for basic needs go up.

It seems like a hopeless situation, but there is one source of food assistance that isn’t fully utilized. The Food Stamp Program, known as Food Support in Minnesota or SNAP in federal lingo, provides food assistance to individuals and families within certain income guidelines. Most of those who visit food shelves qualify for the Food Stamp program but on average in Itasca County about 40% of those eligible don’t use the food assistance that is available to them.

There are many reasons people give for not using the food stamp program. There is the stigma that can be attached to it, especially when stamps were redeemed at the grocery checkout. Now a debit card system is utilized. Other people in line at the store can’t tell the difference between a food support card or if a regular debit or credit card is being swiped through the machine.

Another barrier to food stamp use is the application process. In order to sign up for the program, people are required to visit the county office in person and provide certain documents to prove eligibility. Lack of transportation, understanding what papers to bring and the times the county office is open are barriers to folks who could enroll.

Monthly benefits can be as low as $10 per month for single low income individuals. The complicated process for eligibility and recertification is often given as more effort than the benefit is worth. As hunger relief organizations, we are encouraging people to use their benefits, even if they only get $10 a month. Most of us would pick up a $10 bill or use a $10 gift certificate. Monthly benefits can be also saved up and used as an aggregate up to 3 months.

Your neighborhood grocery store and the local economy are positively impacted by the food stamp program. Those food dollars stay local. If more folks used the food support funds they are eligible for, it would mean more money in the local economy.

Budgets of both low-income food stamp eligible families and grocery stores would benefit from increased participation in the food stamp program. If fewer people needed to use the food shelf because they were using food stamps instead, the budgets of hunger relief agencies like Second Harvest and your local food shelf would have reduced pressure. Increased participation in the Food Support Program would benefit us all.

Budget time, never fun and this year worse than ever, but at least there is one positive program we can promote and support.

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