According to estimates from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the nation has hit a new milestone on the number of Americans using federal food assistance programs. In Idaho, the federal food stamp program continues to become more pervasive as a wider array of retailers participate in it.
In a new report published by the USDA detailing how the federal government's food and nutrition programs overlap, an estimated 101 million Americans, which is roughly 30 percent of the population, are believed to be receiving some form of food assistance from the federal government. That number has now increased to the point where federal food benefit recipients outnumber the number of full-time private sector workers which, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stands at slightly more 97 million..
The food stamp program was designed to provide financial assistance for low income people for the purchase of food products. Created by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the benefit program is funded with federal tax dollars and is administered at the national level by the USDA. The benefits are then distributed by individual state governments, with both state and federal revenues used to fund the distribution systems.
Recipients of the food stamp program are issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, magnetically encoded payment cards (similar to credit cards and debit cards) that can be used at the point of purchase of foods. Retailers must apply with the USDA to become authorized as EBT card recipients, and while some states (such as California) have experimented with allowing EBT cards to be used at restaurants, in Idaho the cards are only authorized to be used at food retailers.
“Food stamp benefits may not be used for hot foods or food that will be eaten at the store where it is purchased,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (the state agency that distributes food stamps and EBT cards in Idaho). “This rules out restaurants or any place in which food is prepared to be eaten immediately,” she told IdahoReporter.com.
Amid the rules for EBT card distribution and usage in Idaho, some gray areas with the program’s administration still exist. For example, Papa Murphy’s, a chain of “take and bake” pizza stores with several locations in Idaho, accepts EBT cards. Food purchased at the stores is presumably not eaten in the stores, nor is it eaten “immediately.” Yet at least part of what Papa Murphy’s sells, in addition to the food product itself, is its preparation; EBT cards pay for this preparation service.
“There are no guidelines for specific retailers that will accept EBT cards, only for what kinds of foods participants can use their benefits to buy,” Forbing-Orr explained. “The kinds of foods people can use their benefits to buy include breads and cereals, fruits and vegetables, meats, fish and poultry, dairy products, and seeds and plants that produce food for the household.”
She added, however, that food stamps can be used to purchase food products that are of little or no nutritional value, including candy, soda and chips.
In recent years it has become more commonplace for retailers in Idaho to advertise that they accept EBT cards. Retailers that promote EBT card usage range from convenience stores to the high-end organic grocery retailer.
The issue of EBT card usage at convenience stores, and the purchase of foods with little or no nutritional value, was the subjected of heated debate in Idaho’s last legislative session.
In April, while debating a bill that sought to change the days and times of the month that EBT cards are distributed, Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, expressed her preference that food stamps should be used for only nutritious food purchases, not for junk food. She believes there is a correlation between the purchase and consumption of unhealthy junk foods and the rising costs of Medicaid services.
During an April 28 legislative hearing, Lodge said an effort should be made to “find ways to help people stretch their food dollars. The food stamp program is supposed to be supplemental nutrition, and we need to get people to stop buying cookies, energy drinks, soft drinks and such. We need to encourage them to buy potatoes instead of a bag of potato chips.”
Forbing-Orr said that determining what kinds of foods can be purchased with EBT cards is largely a federal issue. She told IdahoReporter.com that several individual states have attempted to change or limit the array of products that can be purchased with the cards, but have mostly been unsuccessful.