Detroit News, March 9, 2008: Michigan may be first state to issue food stamps twice a month

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David Eggert / Associated Press

LANSING — Michigan could become the first state in the nation to issue food stamps twice a month, making fresh produce and meat more available and giving grocery workers steadier hours.

The state’s 1.2 million food stamp recipients — the highest number ever — now have their benefits added to a debit card within the first 10 days of the month. They then spend those dollars early in the month, typically in poorer, urban areas where residents may have limited transportation.

Each recipient gets an average $88 a month.

Retailers say the once-a-month assistance is spent early and usually all at once, causing them problems with staffing, cash flow and inventory. Advocates for the poor say food stamp recipients aren’t buying enough healthy, fresh food throughout the month.

Legislation that would require the state to issue food stamp benefits two times a month may be approved by the state Senate this week. A similar measure sponsored by Democratic Rep. Andy Meisner of Ferndale is pending in the House. Recipients who get lower amounts of assistance would still get their payments just once a month.

“I’m trying to help people help themselves,” said bill sponsor Martha Scott, a Democratic senator from Highland Park. “I see people buying so much stuff the first of the month. You want to help people balance things out.”

Distributing food stamps twice monthly would give shoppers more flexibility and encourage them to buy fresher foods at least twice a month, she said.

While the legislation has backing from groceries and unionized workers, not everyone thinks more frequent payments is the solution. They wonder if the problem could be fixed instead by extending the period in which money is added to debit cards from 10 days to 20 days, which would spread out the days food stamp recipients shop.

The state Department of Human Services, which is neutral on the bills, is surveying food stamp recipients to find out their preference and how a switch would affect them. Results should be ready for lawmakers in April.

DHS spokeswoman Maureen Sorbet said the agency is prepared to go to twice-monthly payments or a longer period of payments depending on survey results, legislative developments and getting approval from the federal government, which pays for food stamps. A farm bill being negotiated in Congress could prove a stumbling block, since it includes a provision that would ban states from changing food stamp distribution from once a month.

Terri Stangl, executive director of the Saginaw-based Center for Civil Justice, credited the state for conducting the survey. Some recipients have limited transportation and prefer using their money to buy in bulk for better purchasing power, she said.

“I’m not convinced that with the amount of money they’re getting, they’re going to buy more fresh food,” Stangl said.

Scott, however, argued that issuing benefits once a month but extending the period in which they are handed out would help grocers and their employees, but not recipients.

Chris Michalakis, lobbyist for the 50,000 Michigan members of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, said grocery employees are pushed to work extra hard in the first 10 days of the month, then see their hours cut for the rest of the month.

By distributing food stamps more equally over the month, he said, “workers will see a more even distribution of hours, as well as a greater availability of hours.”

The legislative debate comes at a time when 12 percent, or more than one in nine, Michigan residents get food stamps. Eighty percent of benefits go to households with children. The number of food stamp recipients in Michigan has doubled in six years, most likely because of the weak economy.

The real issue that needs to be addressed, Stangl said, is that food stamp households are able to buy less food because assistance has been eroding each year. The federal food stamp program assumes families have enough of their own money plus food stamps to spend $1.05 per person per meal — not enough for a health diet at today’s prices, she said.

Although the federal farm bill would boost money for food stamps, the price of fresh fruits, vegetables and leaner meats is rising faster than processed foods, making it harder for families to buy the healthier items, she said.

The food stamp bills are House Bill 4923 and Senate Bill 120.

On the Net:

Michigan Legislature:

Michigan Department of Human Services:

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 951:

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