Senate committee approves bill to expand food stamp distribution

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[post_thumbnail] Rep. Christy Perry testifies in front of the Senate Health and Welfare Committee.

Following more than two hours of debate, the Senate Health and Welfare Committee has approved a bill to change the way food stamps are distributed in Idaho. The vote was 6 to 3.

“I’ll just go ahead and tell you, I have family members who are on food stamps,” Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, acknowledged as she presented Senate Bill 1053 before the committee. “I began learning about food stamps as I was investigating welfare fraud measures, but I arrived at my conclusions about food stamp distribution based on my personal experiences talking with family members and other recipients.

SB1053 proposes to change the way in which food stamp benefits are distributed. Instead of the current system of “same-day issuance,” where the stamps are distributed all on one day statewide, the legislation would require that the benefits be disbursed in more of a “staggered” fashion during at least a 10-day period each month.

After Perry had noted that Idaho previously utilized a staggered issuance approach, but abandoned it, Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, asked “What led the Department of Health and Welfare to switch to a same-day issuance approach?”

“It was a cost-cutting measure implemented during the great recession,” Perry replied. “At the beginning of the recession, most Idaho agencies were seeking ways to cut back on their expenses. But we didn’t understand at that time that participation in the food stamp program would skyrocket 278 percent during the recession, and we didn’t see the problems the single-day issuance would create.”

The food stamp program provides financial assistance for low income people for purchasing food. Created by the Congress in 1964, the benefit program is funded with federal tax dollars and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The benefits are then distributed by individual state governments, with both state and federal revenues used to fund the distribution systems.

The costs for Idaho to move to a staggered issuance food stamps system are estimated to be more than $683,000 for the first year and in excess of $231,000 for each year thereafter.

Russ Barron, an administrator for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, spoke on the matter before the committee, noting that “we’ll probably need to add an additional four full-time staffers to make this happen.”

“We believe that making sure that all Idahoans are fed is a sacred duty,” said Darcy James from the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable Against Hunger in Boise. “The problem is that middle and upper income Idahoans can shop any day of the week, but benefits’ recipients can generally only shop one day of the week. This means they often do not get the food that they deserve. Not only that, middle and upper income people are often judgmental towards those that they think they are serving.”

Stan Zatica, CEO of Paul’s Markets in Idaho, testified that “I guess I’m the lone wolf on this. But we’re a traditional grocer, and we’re happy to handle the surge of customers one day a month. We’ll take all the business we can get, including food stamps recipients, and we don’t want a change.”

Sen. Jim Guthrie, R-McCammon, told the committee that “I have to disclose that I own a small grocery store and there are some issues that aren’t being discussed. I understand that the single-day issuance creates problems, but my store gets delivery once a week, that’s all. Our store could not accommodate a staggered stream of benefits’ recipients right now.”

The bill will now go to the full Senate for a vote.

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