Idaho's food stamp system: Nightmare or necessity?

Credit: Mike di Donato/ KTVB

Idaho's food stamp system: Nightmare or necessity?

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by Jamie Grey

Bio | Email | Follow: @KTVBJamieGrey

KTVB.COM

Posted on October 31, 2012 at 10:51 PM

Updated Wednesday, Dec 4 at 5:39 PM

BOISE -- November 1 is set to be another busy day at Idaho's grocery stores. Some grocers say that's because it's the first of the month, which is always busy because it's the day Idaho food stamp recipients get their monthly distribution.

"We have to go on the first because it's the time where we've run out of food stamps. We've got to feed the kids," food stamp (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) participant Jessica Carver said.

Idaho is one of just eight states that issues food stamps to all recipients on one day. Other states stagger the payments over a number of days.

'I am close to empty when I get to the first of the month'

Some stores, like WinCo Foods, say the current system is causing nightmarish problems for their business, and all customers who try to shop on the first.
   
It's been this way since August 2009, when the Department of Health and Welfare went from handing out SNAP benefits over five days to only one.

On October 1, Carver showed KTVB her kitchen. Her refrigerator, freezer and cabinets were full of food. The day before, she says all were nearly bare. She relied on food banks and neighbors to help feed her two children.

"I am close to empty when I get to the first of the month," Carver said. "It's actually very hard for us because yeah, if we budget throughout the month, we'll make it through the month, but there's still that rush to the supermarket on the first."
   
On the first of each month, Carver gets her $668 dollars deposited into her SNAP account. She spends around a third of her money the day she gets it. Federal government numbers show most SNAP households use 75% of their money before a month is half over.  With so many people shopping at once, Carver likens grocery stores to battlefields.

"There's so many people, and so many people want the same thing," Carver said. "I don't want to have to fight somebody for something for my kids. I'd rather it be staggered so that way I wouldn't have to fight someone for it."

 

WinCo claims single-day system has added $1 million in cost

KTVB visited a Nampa WinCo store on October 1st to find busy aisles and plenty of customers. On an average day, WinCo executives say that store looks at around $100,000-$150,000, but on the first day of a month, the number goes over $500,000.

"You would think, what a wonderful, wonderful thing, and certainly we love the business, don't get me wrong," WinCo Foods Vice-President of Public and Legal Affairs said.  "We love every customer. We don't want to turn anyone away or make anyone unhappy, but that that level, it becomes very very difficult to serve the customer."

On October 1, WinCo at times had nearly every checkout stand open, but there were still lines a few carts deep. Employees, some brought in on overtime, constantly restocked shelves. With frustration over crowds, some customers abandoned full carts. When that happens, WinCo reshelves some food, but has to throw away anything perishable for safety reasons.

"It's a product cost that we wouldn't otherwise have. It obviously increases our labor costs because we've got to run more truck with inventory, and we've got more people stocking trying to keep the shelves full. It just creates an enormous issue for us," Read said.

WinCo says the change to single-day food stamp issuance in 2009 has created an estimated one-million dollars in total added cost, and some cost may be passed on to customers.

 

Why was the system changed?

"It is a tough situation to think, what is the best thing to do? The reason we did it was to save taxpayers dollars," Russ Barron, Division of Welfare Administrator, said.

When it made the change, the Department of Health and Welfare says a lot was happening: Necessary changes to how benefits were technically issued, a declining economy, impending budget cuts, and more and more people needing food stamps.

"This was all part of a design to say: How can we do a better job knowing that we need to do more with less?" Barron said.

Since the switch, Idaho has been awarded bonus payments from the federal government for food stamp performance. But at the same time, the USDA has also since advised states to evaluate their distribution methods and consider staggering payments because of "strain on clients...and retailers". Barron says the Department held stakeholder meetings around the state to evaluate the program.

"We have not received any complaints from any participants in the program, that they don't like the single day issuance," Barron said. "When we held the stakeholder meetings, it was overwhelming in each meeting from the participants in the meeting that we should not change from the single day issuance to a multiple day issuance."

 

Health and Welfare: System change would cost around $500,000 to implement
   
Public records show the department is claiming a switch to multiple days will cost around half a million dollars up front (between $440,000 and $550,000 depending on different estimates), plus more than $200,000 each year to maintain. The cost, the department says, is from automation changes, the cost of notifying participants and stakeholders and additional staff to manage phone calls from participants who have questions or complaints.

Based only on that information, it looked like a switch wasn't likely in the cards. But more public records from 2011 and 2012 show many discussions about making a switch at department stakeholder meetings, legislative committee meetings, in emails, and during legislation and funding proposals.

"But then, it didn't go anywhere," Barron said. "We came up with a plan to do it. It was just, it came down to a matter of funding to do it. We had the funding, but we have to have permission to spend those funds on that."

He says they didn't get permission to spend funds for a change, but Senator Dean Cameron (R-Rupert), from the Joint Finance and Appropriations Committee, or JFAC, says the funding and spending authority were built into a generic budget item.

 

Senator: JFAC gave the money and approval for a change, if wanted

"Meetings were held and it was made perfectly clear that they had that authority and the money to do whatever they deemed important," Senator Dean Cameron, Senate Finance Committee Chair, said.  "It's my belief that they have that authority to change to multiple day issuance."

Cameron says the budget item was not expressly named, as proposed at the beginning of the session, because the finance committee did not want to force a program change.

"That was all in the way of trying to keep JFAC from being making the public policy decision for the rest of the legislature," Cameron said.

In the 2012 session, a bill ran that would have required the Department of Health and Welfare to change to a multi-day distribution model. The bill passed the House, but did not make it out of Senate committee. Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge (R-Huston) says the bill came at the last second and told KTVB not everyone supported a change.
 
Cameron says with that, the legislature has not taken a stance on any change for the food stamp program. He believes legislators have gotten mixed signals from the department on whether they want to make a change.

What happened to the plan discussed so many times? Will it change?

"In this situation, we've examined it. And it's just kind of in the middle the way I see it. You've got some that are really for it, some that are really against it," Barron said.

For now, Barron says the option that doesn't cost additional money, staying the same, is more favorable. Even so, those for staggered issuance say the fight isn't over.

"It's always good to save money in government, but not always the most beneficial for the most people," Karen Martz, Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger, said.

People, including Carver, have been collecting petition signatures, asking the governor and legislators for a change to what they call a broken system.

"It's just not really working well," Martz said.

 

Another bill likely to surface in 2013
   
Moving ahead, everyone KTVB talked to for this story anticipates a bill next session. Cameron has plans to ask the department what it's doing with the money he says they have for a change to multi-day distribution.

Carver, like others,  is watching the calendar, waiting for November 1 when she can shop again.

"I'm looking at this going, It's going to be a long day," Carver said.
   
For Carver -- and everyone who shops in our state -- it appears the 1st of the month will continue to be a busy day at grocery stores.

"What's increasingly troubling at this time is we're also involved in the whole Affordable Care Medicaid changes," Barron said. "So we had a window of time when we could have done this and probably done a pretty good job with it. That window has now passed. For the next two years, we are so focused on trying to meet federal requirements over on the Medicaid program."

Again, Health and Welfare says not all participants are against this. Neither are all grocery stores. KTVB reached out to Fred Meyer, Wal-Mart, Albertson's and Paul's Market for their take, but have had no response.

 
 

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