AUGUSTA, Maine — More than 189,000 Mainers, about one in every seven, are receiving federal food assistance this month, the highest in state history, and state officials believe that number could increase before the recession ends.
“Food assistance is a supplement to help people meet a critical need,” said Barbara Van Burgel, director of the Office of Integrated Access and Support, the state agency that administers what until this fall was called the Food Stamp program. It is now called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP.
“This has always been an important program here in Maine, and we have been seeing an increase in the number of people receiving assistance for several years,” she said.
Five years ago, an average of 132,000 Mainers were receiving food stamp benefits every month; in 2007 that had increased to an average of 162,000. With this month’s record numbers, Van Burgel expects the average to grow, but not significantly.
“We have only seen an increase of about 2 percent in the number of people eligible, as figured by [the U.S. Department of Agriculture] which looks at eligibility on a regular basis,” she said.
The food assistance program no longer uses stamps, but a debit card, Van Burgel said, and that was one reason why federal officials changed the name of the program. The card has made it easier to prevent misuse of the benefits and has reduced the administrative costs of the program.
Last year, more than $170 million was distributed for the purchase of food by the program, and that is on track to increase significantly this year.
“We are carefully watching the numbers every month to see what the impact of the recession is having on the system,” Van Burgel said.
The food stamp benefit is paid for entirely with federal funds, while the state pays to administer the program. With changes made in federal law and rule changes adopted by the state, the size of the benefit has increased.
The average benefit this month is $223, an increase of about 12 percent over the average benefit earlier this year.
Federal officials granted the state’s request to increase the utility allowances under the program last summer, which meant about 59,000 families in Maine received about $23 a month in additional benefits. A second allowance, the Non-Heat Standard Utility Allowance, increased from $172 to $180 a month and also increased benefits and expanded eligibility.
In addition, as part of the Farm Bill overhaul of the program, Congress approved changes that affect about 1,500 families with children and day care expenses, and they got an additional $38 a month in benefits.
“I think one of the major reasons we have so many of those that are eligible actually receiving benefits is our approach where a worker for any program, like MaineCare [the state name for Medicaid] also asks a person about food assistance,” Van Burgel said.
Economists say federal government spending on programs such as food assistance has a significant impact on the state economy. This month, the program is providing benefits that total $21 million.
“All of that is spent directly in the state and there is a multiplier effect of at least two times that amount as the money circulates,” said University of Maine economics professor James Breece. But, he said, its major importance in a recession is to help stabilize the economy by providing the safety net to people out of work or to those who simply do not make enough to feed their families.
“It helps things from getting worse,” he said.
Economists say the benefits of the program are not just for the individuals who get the assistance; it also helps both large grocery stores and “mom and pop” stores because many people who receive food stamps also face difficulties paying for transportation and visit neighborhood stores.
Barbara Davidson, president of the Maine Grocers Association, owns and operates Carver’s Harbor Market in Vinalhaven and has seen an increase in sales to customers using food assistance.
“Until you asked, I really hadn’t looked at it,” she said. “But we see it is up.”
Store staff indicates sales using food assistance debit cards vary day to day from a few percent up to as high as 12 percent.
Davidson said she is “conservative” and does get upset at some of the food that individuals buy at her store. She said often it is frozen dinners and junk food and not a good nutritional value.
She is not alone in that concern. Katherine Musgrave, who retired years ago as a professor of nutrition at the University of Maine, said not enough is done to help food assistance recipients get the most out of the benefit.
“In this economy, it is so important that people get the best nutritional value for their money,” she said. “And I mean everybody.”
Current regulations prohibit the use of food stamps for cleaning supplies, paper products, alcohol or tobacco, but allow the purchase of virtually any foods, including soda, candy, chips and other items that many consider junk food.
Bangor pediatric dentist and public health advocate Jonathan Shenkin, president-elect of the Maine Dental Association, recently called for Maine to add soda to the list of items that cannot be purchased with food assistance benefits.
If a federal waiver were granted, Maine would be the first state in the nation to prohibit soda purchases with food stamp dollars.