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By Rose Hoban

Last week, President Donald Trump unveiled his first federal budget since taking office in January. While Trump’s budget made cuts to discretionary programs in the U.S. Department of Agriculture and to other programs, such as Meals on Wheels, that affect the poor, his budget left the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as food stamps, intact.

In North Carolina, SNAP provides monthly assistance to low income people that they can use to buy food. Rather than being actual coupons, as the vouchers were in the past, people who are eligible for the SNAP benefits get an electronic benefit transfer card that looks like a bank debit card.

North Carolinians received about $2.5 billion in SNAP benefits in the last fiscal year according to Deb Landry, a staffer with the legislative Fiscal Research Division.

Landry told the Joint Health and Human Services Appropriations Committee on Tuesday morning that during that time, an average of 761,999 households received SNAP each month, with a benefit total of about $187.40.

The monthly total can fluctuate pretty dramatically. In October 2015, 1,647,808 individuals received SNAP benefits. By January of this year, that number was down to 1,470,862.

Graph courtesy NC Fiscal Research Division, based on USDA data.

One reason for the decline from the end of 2015 to the present was a change in rules around SNAP assistance that went into effect in January 2016. That was when unemployed “able-bodied adults” without dependents lost benefits in 23 counties.

Usually, those adults who are not disabled, who don’t have children and don’t have another type of exemption, such as being in school, are only able to receive SNAP benefits for three months out of every three years. But during the economic downturn in 2009, the Obama administration waived those requirements. And as the economy improved, states and counties where unemployment was higher than the national average were allowed to apply for waivers to continue getting enhanced benefits.

“There was a 75 percent growth in the Food and Nutrition Service caseload in North Carolina between 2008 and 2013, that was the Great Recession,” said Wayne Black, head of the Division of Social Services in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In late 2015, the General Assembly told DHHS to stop applying for those waivers.  In 23 of the state’s largest counties, the waivers expired last January. The rest of the state lost enhanced SNAP benefits in July.

“The waivers ended in some of the bigger counties first,” Landry said. “But they had the majority of the population receiving benefits.”

Black also said there’s been a decline in the number of recipients because the economy is slowly improving and more people are getting back to work.

North Carolina SNAP recipients by Congressional district. Click on an area to see details. Data courtesy: USDA

Feeding post-disaster

After Hurricane Matthew, an additional 100,000 households in 45 counties received disaster SNAP benefits, Landry told the committee. The average amount received by those households was $393 to replace food lost and spoiled as a result of the storm, as well as to supplement for people’s lost incomes.

“Between replacement, supplemental and new recipients, $89.7 million in disaster Food and Nutrition Services was provided after the hurricane,” Landry said.

What people ate

A study published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in November gave the first look ever at what people who use SNAP buy.

It turns out people using the benefits eat pretty much like everyone else in the United States, including buying a good amount of junk foods such as sweetened beverages, chips and prepared desserts.

About 40 cents of every dollar went to basics like bread, milk, meat, eggs, fruits and vegetables for both SNAP and non-SNAP households. The top vegetable for both kinds of households were potatoes, and the top meat for both was ground beef.

About 20 cents of every dollar went to sodas and salty snacks, compared to about 18 cents for non-SNAP households.

Chart shows the top 15 types of food purchased by SNAP and Non-SNAP households gathered from a study performed by USDA using 2011 point-of-sale data gathered nationally.

“It’s disappointing in both SNAP households and households with incomes well above SNAP [levels] that as Americans we don’t adequately follow the dietary guidelines,” USDA official Kevin Concannon said in an interview with the Huffington Post.

But SNAP households spent a notably larger share—about 15 percentage points more than non- SNAP households—on infant formulas and baby foods than non-SNAP households.

As far back as 1997, and up to now, legislators have proposed restricting SNAP benefits to only “healthy” foods. But the agency stated in a position paper published in 2007 that “there are

serious problems with the rationale, feasibility and potential effectiveness of this proposal.”
For starters, there’s no agreed upon standard of what constitutes a “healthy food.” The document also points out there are more than 300,000 food items on the market and enforcement of what constitutes a healthy choice would often rest with check out employees.

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Rose Hoban

Rose Hoban is the founder and editor of NC Health News, as well as being the state government reporter. Hoban has been a registered nurse since 1992, but transitioned to journalism after earning degrees...

4 replies on “NC Food Assistance Programs – A SNAPshot”

  1. I was particularly interested in the amount the amount SNAP recipients spend on non-healthy foods. Looking at the carts in the grocery line I see more junk food in those carts than healthy food. I think SNAP funds should only be used by recipients to buy meats, fruits, vegetables, bread and baby needs. They can use their own limited funds to by junk food if they must have it.

  2. The Food Stamp Program is a Federal program that provides a monthly allotment of Food Stamp benefits issued via Electronic Benefit Transfer cards (like ATM cards, they are called EBT cards). The Food Stamp Program is an entitlement program; so all eligible individuals and households can receive assistance. Food Stamp benefits may be used to purchase most foods at participating stores. They may not be used to purchase tobacco, pet food, paper products, soap products, or alcoholic beverages. Applications are taken at county Departments of Social Services in the county in which the household resides.

  3. Why can able bodied people with children all attending school be exempt from the work requirement? I am aware of many in this category that can enjoy all aspects of life enjoyments despite having children yet unable to perform gainful employment. (They can drive, dine out, go on outings social and vacation, drive, travel, drink, spend their and others resources freely yet unable to work). I cannot work, I hear over and over ” I receive food stamps and medicaid for self and children”, yet can perform all the enjoyable aspects of life?
    Then the schools feed their children and send food products home for the school breaks, week ends and holidays.
    Two pressing questions, why are these able bodied parents exempt from the work requirement? The second question why do the schools need to feed the children while the parents are receiving a full food stamp award? (where are these food stamp awards being used for?).

  4. Really fine article that provides a very balanced overview of SNAP in NC. It is a well run public Federal/state shared program that effectively reduces food insecurity and hunger among the most vulnerable residents of the state. And, in addition to the direct help to individuals and families, the economic effects of the program funds help local economies and provide jobs in supermarkets,stores,farms and transportation .

    Kevin Concannon

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