Food stamps: Stigma... or stimulus? - KXXV Central Texas News Now


Food stamps: Stigma... or stimulus?

by Mark Wiggins

WACO - It's federal money available to tens of thousands of Central Texans, but less than half are taking advantage of federal food assistance programs.

According to the USDA, Texas is the second hungriest state in the nation, with 1.4 million people experiencing hunger daily. Data collected from 2009 estimate that 8.8 million Texas households are unable to provide all members with adequate nutrition for a health, active life.

In McLennan County, where 20.1 percent of the population lives at or below the poverty line, food insecurity is a heavy burden for many families.

In fact, of the 233,000 people who live in McLennan County, over 66,000 qualify for the federal government's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or "food stamps." 

But although nearly a quarter of the county is eligible for benefits, less than half actually participate. 

Matt Hess, Education Director of World Hunger Relief, Inc., says there are many reasons why so few are participating in the program. The requirements to qualify for food stamps are different from those that classify a household as below poverty.  A person doesn't have to be living below the poverty level in order to qualify, and Hess says that can be a source of confusion.

"Not everybody really realizes," he says.  "They think, 'Oh that's for the people who are really, really poor.'  There's always somebody that's poorer than them that they think deserves it."

Hess is also a member of the McClennan County Hunger Coalition, which is chaired by the Rev. Dr. Kenneth Moerbe, a longtime volunteer and advocate for those in need.

Moerbe agrees that the majority of the problem lies in people either not realizing that they qualify or not knowing where and how to apply.  But there are also those who are eligible, yet wrestle with what they see as a stigma attached to those who use food stamps.

"People have a lot of pride," explains Moerbe.  "They see it as welfare.  They've never accepted welfare in their family and they're not going to at this point."

But in these down economic times, how much does the stigma still play a role?

News Channel 25 took the question to Facebook.

Viewer Tonya posted, "I never thought in a million years I would need food stamps until I was laid off in January...  If you need the help, take it!"

Others, like Kim, say the decision to apply for food stamps was a hard choice, but one she had to make.

"I was ashamed to go ask for the help," she posted. "I was ashamed to use the card and would shop at night so I didn't run into someone who might know me."

While opponents have accused food stamp programs of creating a "welfare state," the dollars can have a direct and traceable impact on the local economy.

Alexis Weaver at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce says federal money from food stamp purchases is money that goes directly to local grocery and convenience stores.

"A lot of those are going to be in areas that are typically low-income," says Weaver, who explains that food stamp spending can also directly stimulate specific geographic areas blighted by poverty.

With only 48 percent of eligible people participating in 2009, Weaver says the McLennan County missed out on $48.7 million in federal funds pumped directly into businesses.  In fact, for every $1.00 spent in food stamps, $1.87 is returned to the local economy in indirect stimulus like job creation and raises.  By that math, the indirect stimulative effect lost in 2009 totaled $87.3 million.

And it's not just the economy that stands to benefit.  Moerbe says getting the right amount of food is especially important for the county's youngest residents.

"If they do not receive the proper nutrition, that brain doesn't function as it's designed to function," says Moerbe.  "They're not going to be able to do the kind of learning, for instance in pre-school and kindergarten and first, second and third grade, when there's not proper nutrition."

It's a fact that could have long-term consequences for those who are clinically undernourished during their formative years.

Moerbe and Hess believe the more people know about the options available to them, the more will begin to participate and take advantage of programs aimed to end hunger and food insecurity.  The two, in partnership with other organizations like the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, hope that a McLennan County Food Planning Task Force can tackle the issue by combining resources and communication.

"We know that in McLennan County, there's enough resources," says Hess.  "There's enough people working on hunger that if we can work together to create a strategy, then we can make a much better impact than we are right now."

The McLennan County Hunger Coalition has several events coming up in April, including the Wheels of Sharing Mobile Food Pantry on April 12 and the Spring On To Summer Food Drive on April 29, sponsored by Caritas.

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