Idaho grocers plead for remedy after $1M in spoiled food

MONDAY, JAN. 16, 2012, 2:47 P.M.

BOISE – Idaho’s grocery stores are putting up $100,000 of their own money and asking state lawmakers to change back to multi-day distribution of food stamps each month, after having to throw out a million dollars worth of food over the last two years because of the crush of food-stamp recipients all descending on the stores at once.

“It’s just grossly inefficient and wasteful,” said Joe Gilliam, president of the Northwest Grocers Association. “The last two years my industry’s lost over a million dollars in spoiled food over this, just in Idaho.”

The reason: When the crowds hit, some people abandon their full carts and give up because the lines get so long. All the frozen food in the carts can’t be restocked and goes to waste.

Idaho is one of just a handful of states in the nation using a single-day distribution for food stamps each month; it’s the only one in the Northwest. Now, the state Department of Health and Welfare has a plan to shift to a staggered, 10-day distribution, which could start in May – but it’ll cost more.

The grocers have agreed to foot $100,000 of the change-over cost, Gilliam said, including $41,000 for programming and more for communication with recipients to ease the transition.

State Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong is seeking approval from lawmakers for the changeover in his department’s budget for next year, though the state wouldn’t have to kick in additional money until fiscal year 2014. That’s because Idaho’s fast-growing food stamp program has won two significant bonuses from the federal government for accuracy, timely processing of benefits and high performance, even as its caseloads have swelled. “We really have been very proud of the division,” Armstrong said. “We’re in the top 10 percent of performing states.”

The bonuses totaled $1.2 million, and a portion of that will cover part of the conversion costs plus ongoing costs until the 2014 fiscal year starts on July 1, 2013.

Idaho used to hand out food stamps on five different days each month, but switched to a single day in 2009 to save money – it’s simpler and cheaper. Going to the new 10-day staggered system will cost about $220,000 more a year and require four new state workers; Armstrong said the state will need to pony up $110,000 of that a year starting in 2014, while federal funds will cover the rest.

When Idaho first made the switch to single-day distribution, it didn’t much matter to grocers, because not that many Idahoans were on food stamps. In 2008, just 95,433 Idahoans received the federally funded benefit that helps pay for food for low-income people. But the numbers have exploded; in fiscal year 2011, 223,730 people got food stamps in Idaho, and the projection for the current year is 237,874.

“It has grown exponentially,” Armstrong said, as the economic downturn and unemployment forced more people to sign up – most for the first time.

Gilliam said the Nampa, Idaho area has been particularly hard-hit; there, people have been flocking to a local 24-hour Winco grocery store at 3 a.m. to fill their carts and be ready to pay when their food stamp benefits kick in at 4 a.m. on the 1st of the month.

“It’s really caused a huge bottleneck for consumers,” he said. Making matters worse, the food stamp recipients are converging on stores at the same time as many others who get paid on the 1st of each month. “This causes stocking issues, inventory problems,” Gilliam said.

“The lines get tremendously long at the grocery stores on the 1st. It’s very frustrating.”

After grocers approached the state about the problem a year ago, Armstrong said Gov. Butch Otter asked him to work with them on a solution, and that’s what he’s proposing now.

Under the new plan, the timing of distribution of food stamp benefits would depend on the last digit of the year of the birthdate of the primary family member receiving the benefits. That means someone born in 1965 would get their benefits on the fifth of the month.

For the change to happen, it must be endorsed by the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee as part of the Health and Welfare budget, and then the budget bill must pass both the House and Senate and be signed into law by the governor.

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