BOISE -- More than 200,000 Idahoans who are already struggling with food costs now face another financial hit.
A stimulus bill that gave extra money to food stamp participants ran out on November 1st, which means some benefits were reduced.
The change sparked our investigation into exactly how much money a family needs for food, and how many people are abusing the system.
ONE FAMILY'S STORY
Jennifer Horton works at home during the day as a baby-sitter while her husband works construction.
She has three children of her own who live at home, which means five mouths to feed.
"We do peanut butter, lots of peanut butter, and then we try to do a lot of salads because we can do lettuce for cheap," said Horton.
But it's still not cheap enough, since she just lost 45 dollars a month in food stamp benefits.
"To have to worry about what you are going to feed your kids from night to night, it's not a walk in the park, it's not fun," said Horton.
Horton says the loss amounts to about eight meals a week for her family. She's still not sure how they'll get by with less.
"It's not a choice either, because we are doing everything we can to not have to deal with that and it's stressful, very much so and especially with the holidays coming too, cause kids don't understand," said Horton.
Because of Horton's combined income, their family of five now gets $374 a month.
DROP IN BENEFITS
When the stimulus money stopped on November 1st, maximum benefits dropped by an average of five percent.
For an individual, that means 200 dollars a month down to 189. For a family of four, it's 668 down to 632.
We compared those numbers to what the government calls a normal grocery bill.
USDA says the average monthly cost to feed a family of four at the cheapest level -- is $634.40.
Idaho Foodbank executive director Karen Vauk says even though they've been preparing families for the reductions, the change isn't easy.
"I think we were all hoping that by this point in time the economy would be back to the point that increased benefit would no longer be needed, but what we're seeing in Idaho is that families are still struggling," said Vauk.
Vauk says food stamp benefits weren't designed to cover for every meal throughout the month, but instead be supplemental.
But for many, it's all they have, and now they have even less.
"Then you have to look at a family of four and say where are we going to give up 14 meals? That's tough," said Vauk.
Idaho's Department of Health and Welfare looks into the public's reports of possible fraud.
They have nine people throughout the state who spend every day investigating abuse of the system.
"I can give you an example, energy drinks, people will report individuals are buying energy drinks, hot foods," said investigator Benjamin Johnson.
But Johnson explains that's not something they regulate, since there are few restrictions on which foods you can buy.
They do, however, look at misreported income, and people registered for food stamps in multiple states.
They now have a data matching program that helps them find information about those participating in the program.
"Whenever you have these types of programs there is going to be fraud, that's just how it is," said Johnson.
And the number of potential cases has gone up -- to more than 15,000 in 2013.
The Department of Health and Welfare was able to investigate about 2,500 of those cases. They found some type of fraud or mis-allocated benefits in about 1,000 cases.
"The manpower involved in trying to investigate every case, we have to pick and choose the more egregious," said Johnson. "Our goal is to save taxpayer money or to bring back in taxpayer money."
For those participating in the food stamp program, more cuts could be coming. Congress is now debating the farm bill.
The House is pushing for 39 billion dollars in cuts in the food stamp program over ten years.