Federal food aid usage rises

Champaign native Miesha Jones spends the $315 a month she receives in federal food assistance benefits at Sam's Club.

Jones, the single mother of a 3-year-old daughter, usually takes her monthly shopping trip to the bulk shopping club or, on occasion, Wal-Mart.

"I get everything at once," said Jones, 24. That way, she said, "you don't spend as much on stuff."

Jones first applied to the food stamp program a year ago. Now known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – SNAP – the benefits help low-income families buy most foods.

Nationally, more than 40 million people use food stamp benefits – a historic high. Illinois saw a 27 percent increase in applications between June 2009 and June 2010.

That increase is showing up locally, too.

One in 10 Champaign County residents is enrolled in the program, according to data provided by the state Department of Human Services – an increase of 27 percent over 2006. In 2006, about 16,300 people in Champaign County were receiving SNAP benefits. By June 2010, there were 20,690 county residents receiving SNAP benefits.

The trend can be linked to the economy, said Tom Green, a spokesman for the Department of Human Services.

"More people are losing jobs, more people are being under employed and there are higher prices," he said. "Salaries and income are not rising with inflation."

A family of four with a gross monthly income of about $2,390 could qualify for food stamp benefits, Green said. Income, size of family and assets are the three factors that determine a person's eligibility.

The average amount of monthly household benefits in Illinois is $296. With no income, the maximum a household could receive is $668 a month, Green said.

Jones has started studying cosmetology part-time at Regency Beauty Institute. She also works 25 to 30 hours a week as a bus monitor for the Champaign School District. Her monthly average income is about $800. When she received a small raise, her food stamp assistance was reduced by about $50 a month.

Jones said she applied for the benefits because she cares for her daughter alone without any financial assistance from her daughter's father. But she tries to spend it wisely.

"I save a lot of money," she said.

Jones favors the bulk food stores over convenience stores, where prices are higher.

In the past year, she said, she bought some milk for her daughter from a local convenience store just once.

"Milk at a gas station costs $3," Jones said. "At Wal-Mart, it costs $2.30."

Still, despite higher food prices at convenience stores, food stamp spending at convenience stores and combination grocery/other stores such as Dollar General is on the rise in Champaign County – even though it is only a small percentage of the total amount of food stamp dollars spent.

Champaign County residents spent $20.5 million in food stamps at supermarkets and super stores in 2008. In 2009, that rose by 37 percent to $28.1 million, according to federal data obtained by CU-CitizenAccess.

The number of county convenience stores that accepted food stamp benefits rose 65 percent between October 2007 and June 2010 – from 26 stores in October 2007 to 43 stores in June 2010, according to federal data obtained by CU-CitizenAccess.

In 2008, convenience stores collectively claimed $564,000 in food stamp dollars. For 2009, these stores redeemed nearly $860,000 in food stamp dollars, an increase of 52 percent.

Combination grocery/other stores have followed a similar trend. In 2008, combination grocery stores collected a total of just over $450,000 in food stamp dollars throughout Champaign County. These stores collected just over $733,000 in food stamp dollars in 2009, a rise of more than 60 percent.

The use of SNAP benefits at convenience and combination stores worries some health officials because those stores traditionally don't stock fresh fruit and produce.

"Convenience stores, especially ones in food desert areas, become the main access point for some underserved people," said Brandon Meline, director of child and maternal health management at Champaign County Health Department. "It's a double-edged sword. There are places to access (food), but anecdotally, we see people accessing potato chips with SNAP benefits."

Areas with limited access to affordable and nutritional food are considered food deserts, according to the 2008 Farm Bill.

"More and more convenience stores become SNAP vendors because they want their dollars, but there's not (an) initiative to provide healthier choices," Meline said.

For convenience stores, though, the future lies in food, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of communications for the National Association of Convenience Stores.

"Basically, everybody is selling food," he said. "Otherwise, you are limiting your options."

"Food presents some opportunities," Lenard said. "Convenience stores, unlike other (types of stores), are in every community. Convenience stores serve everyone, they are in every neighborhood in the country. So I think they are also the stores that would be aware of what the community wants before any other stores.

"We're looking to take the lead on providing healthier options in areas that are considered food deserts," he said. "The real critical thing is you have to look at what goes in their mouths, not what comes out of their mouths. Perception is often different than our behavior."

For Jones, her grocery needs are simple.

"Mostly fruits and vegetables and not that much meat," she said. "I buy everything except pork."

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