December 9, 2012

Editorial: Community need for food help


---- — It seems like a good time of year to urge people to think charitably about food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture program, which has been around for 40 years, has, over time, developed an undeserving stigma. Some people who are fortunate enough not to need the program have sized up the grocery choices of some food-stamp users and decided they don’t like how their tax money is being used. They picture lazy non-workers smooching off the government.

Certainly, offenders are misusing the program, but they are the minority. An enlightening Press-Republican section cover by reporter Joe LoTemplio showed that 28 percent of Clinton County residents who are receiving food stamps are working but make below the qualifying limit: $29,664 per year for a family of four. About 51 percent of the people receiving benefits are children, and around 9 percent are age 60 or older.

The need has increased as the economy has worsened. In Clinton County, the number of food-stamp recipients has risen about 47 percent from 2004 to this year, with about 11,600 people getting help. The number of Essex County recipients is up 61 percent, with 1,915 cases in 2011 (each case can represent a number of people). In Franklin County, usage is up 40 percent, with 3,688 cases this year.

The name of the program was officially changed in 2008 to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, and recipients now use benefit cards, which are less conspicuous when used at cash registers. Both changes are an attempt to overcome some of the stigma so people who need the program will feel comfortable using it.

Here is what the USDA allows for purchases: Food for the household to eat, such as breads, cereals, fruits, vegetables, meats, fish, poultry and dairy products, as well as seeds and plants that produce food.

Contrary to the stereotype, families can’t use SNAP benefits to buy beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco; nonfood items, such as pet food, soap, paper products, household supplies, vitamins and medicine; food that will be eaten in the store; and hot foods. If you see those items in shopping carts of people using food benefits, the money isn’t coming from SNAP.

Congress has, over the years, considered limiting certain other types of food. “However, they concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome,” the USDA website says.

Among the eligible items that have been the focus of criticism are soda, candy, cookies, snack crackers, ice cream, seafood, steak and bakery cakes. Plenty of people who don’t receive benefits also fill their carts with these items, of course, but we do hope that food-program recipients get nutrition counseling, as that would impact other areas as well, such as health-care costs.

We urge people to show compassion for people in their community who need this government help to avoid hunger.