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Idaho grocers seek to ease food stamp rush

Tue., Jan. 17, 2012, midnight

BOISE – Idaho’s grocery stores are putting up $100,000 of their own money and asking state lawmakers to change back to multiday distribution of food stamps each month, saying the current system has forced them to throw out a million dollars’ worth of food over the past two years.

The reason: When the benefits are released on the first day of each month, the lines in stores get so long some people abandon their full carts. All the frozen food in the carts can’t be restocked and goes to waste.

“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.”

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 changeover cost, Gilliam said, including $41,000 for programming and more for communication with recipients to ease the transition.

Health and Welfare Department 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 because it was 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 each year starting in 2014, while federal funds will cover the rest.

When Idaho first made the switch to single-day distribution, it wasn’t a big concern for grocers because not many Idahoans were on food stamps. In 2008, just 95,433 Idahoans received the federally funded benefit that helps low-income people pay for food. 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. on the first of the month to fill their carts and be ready to pay when their food stamp benefits kick in at 4 a.m.

“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 first. “This causes stocking issues, inventory problems,” Gilliam said.

“The lines get tremendously long at the grocery stores on the first. 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 beneficiary’s year of birth. That means someone born in 1965 would get his or her 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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