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Benefits down, spending up: Unraveling FoodShare's impact

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Catherine W. Idzerda
November 17, 2013

JANESVILLE--People receiving FoodShare--commonly called food stamps--will see their benefits decrease this month, but in the last 10 years FoodShare spending has increased more than 400 percent in Rock County.

On Nov. 1, FoodShare--commonly called food stamps--benefits decreased, ending a temporary boost that was part of a 2009 economic stimulus package.

The recent drop in FoodShare benefits means a  family of four would see their monthly benefits go from $668 to as low as $632, a decrease of $36 or about 5 percent.

Carla Haigh, division manager for economic support services, said her staff hasn't heard a "drastic outcry" about the month's return to lower benefit levels. However, staff has received a lot of calls from people confused about the changes. 

Part of the problem was that recipients received at letter in October notifying them of an annual increase in benefits. Then, a few weeks later, they got another letter saying their benefits were decreasing Nov. 1.

Organizations such as ECHO, the social services agency that provides food and other services to low income people, saw people who were confused about the changes.

Karen Zapotosky, ECHO client advocate described the two letters as "just bad timing."

As for the decrease, "a lot of people didn't understand it."

"They're paying for more rent, for utilities and they're paying a lot more at the store for food," Zapotosky said.

RISING COST

On the other side of the balance sheet, numbers provided by the Wisconsin Department of Human Services show that Rock County's annual spending on FoodShare increased 404 percent between 2003 and 2012, going from $8.68 million in 2003 to $43.72 million in 2012.

The largest percentage increase, 64 percent, occurred in 2009, when FoodShare payments in Rock County went from $17.5 million to $28.8 million. That change was during the first years of the recession when the local economy was reeling from closure of the General Motors plant and related businesses. It also was the year the benefits boost went into effect.

FoodShare numbers are driven by a number of factors, the most significant--and most obvious--being unemployment and the condition of the local economy. But program changes can drive numbers, too.

In 2003, the state made significant changes to the program, including reducing reporting requirements.

Among the goals driving the changes were to “stimulate the state's economy through increased federal revenue" and increase the number of people on food stamps to “bring federal funds to the state's businesses," according to a state Department of Human Services PowerPoint.

Before the changes,  participants were required to report, within 10 days, any new source of work income, more than $100 a month of total child support, people moving in and out of a household, changes in child support obligations and a variety of other income-related markers.

After the change, households could be “certified” for six months, and had  to report only significant financial changes.

Before the changes, clients often were penalized for failing to report changes in income or household size and had benefits reduced or taken away.

The 2003 changes helped people who qualified stay on the program, but they also helped drive up the numbers.

Between 1995 and 2001, the number of food stamp cases and the amount spent went up and down, both in the state and in Rock County. In 2001, there were fewer unduplicated cases of families or individuals needing food stamps, both in Rock County and in the state as a whole. 

Since that time, the numbers have only increased.

WHAT'S ALLOWED: USDA FINDS IT CHALLENGING TO RESTRICT CHOICES

Recipients of FoodShare benefits are encouraged to stick to the basics, such as breads, cereals, fruits and vegetable, lean meats, canned fish and dairy products.

But the program has long been subject to criticism for what participants are allowed to buy with their benefits.

According to the USDA, FoodShare—more commonly referred to as food stamps--benefits cannot be used to buy:

-- Nonfood items such as tobacco, pet food, household supplies, shampoo or soap, vitamins and medicine.

-- Hot food or food that will be eaten in the store. 

Benefits can be used to buy anything that qualifies as food such as soft drinks, candy, cookies, snack crackers, ice cream, seafood, steak and bakery cakes.

-- Seeds and plants that produce food.

-- Holiday gift baskets, but only when the value of the nonfood items is less that 50 percent of the cost.

-- “Take and bake food.” 

Why not set tougher restrictions on what recipients can buy with FoodShare dollars?

The USDA has considered such restrictions. In a 2007 report, it outlined some of the challenges of creating such a list. Perhaps the biggest challenge is defining “healthy food.”

Consider:

-- Diet sodas have no fat, sugars and many are low in sodium. Those characteristics would make them healthy choice for a person trying to lose weight. But diet soda also has no nutritional value.

-- Some brands of potato chips have less sodium per serving than some popular breakfast cereals. Such cereals might have added vitamin and minerals but also contain a large amount of added sugars.

-- Some candy bars have a lower percentage of calories from fat and less saturated fat than a serving of cheese.

-- Other foods, such as granola bars, are marketed as healthy snacks when they have more fat, sugar and sodium than other items that are traditionally seen as “junk food.”

-- Everyone recognizes that limiting fat intake is important in all diets. But there are individual foods, such as nuts, meat and avocados that are high in fat but also “recognized as making positive contributions to a balanced diet,” the USDA said.

In addition, the USDA report noted that thousands of food items come out every year, and making a decision about every item would be a logistical nightmare.

One federal program food program that does limit food choices is Women, Infants and Children, which is more commonly known as WIC.

WIC serves low-income pregnant women, nursing mothers and children younger than 5.

WIC is a supplemental nutrition program, and FoodShare participants can enroll in both programs.

The biggest difference?

“FoodShare has very few restrictions,” said Susan Stein, executive director Nutrition and Health Associates/Rock County WIC. “WIC is very specific.”

Those “specific” recommendations are based on the Institute of Medicine that shows that nearly all low-income women in childbearing years and children 2 years and older are at “dietary risk” both in terms of quality and quantity of food.

Another difference? WIC food benefits are not automatic.

To participate in WIC, income-eligible women make an appointment with their local office, bringing their preschool age children with them.

Depending on the situation, the appointment might include lead testing, connection to pre-natal care and other health checks and basic nutrition information.

Most importantly, they meet with a dietitian that reviews their family's needs and eating habits and gives them a “food prescription” based on their needs, Stein said.

That could include items such as baby food and cereal, formula, milk, whole grains, fresh fruit and vegetables.



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