One in five Mississippians rely on food stamps to put food on the table...that's the highest rate in the nation.

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Mississippi Leads Nation in Reliance on Food Stamps or SNAP

By Daniel Cherry | Published 17 Jan 2012 09:43pm | comments

One in five Mississippians uses food stamps, or the SNAP program, to put food on the table. The state leads the nation in its use of food assistance programs. MPB's Daniel Cherry reports how this is a lifeline for thousands living in poverty in the state.

Linda Black is using her EBT, or food stamp card to purchase her groceries for the month at this Piggly Wiggly grocery store in Jackson.

After pushing the shopping cart to her truck she goes through the list of items she'll eat for the next month.

"I got milk and eggs and turkey. I got orange juice. I have rice and green beans. I got stuff to cook...to cook a basic meal", says Black.

Black is just one of more than 20% of Mississippians who use SNAP, also known as food stamps, as a resource to buy groceries. She's a retired teacher living on a fixed budget...for her, the $200 she gets from the program each month is invaluable.

"I know that's coming every month. If I don't get nothing...I know that's coming every month. I'm retired, waiting on disability. I'm not so well, but I know each month on the 5th, I'll get that. It's a blessing just to know that it's there."

Across the nation, distributions from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, rose 11% last year. The most recent figures from the state Department of Human Services, which administers SNAP, show usage has been on the rise in Mississippi. John Davis is the Director of the program in the state.

"Historically we've seen individuals in Mississippi who are receiving benefits, but because of the economy and the downturn we've had even more and non-traditional folks. When I say non-traditional I'm talking about individuals who maybe in the past have never thought about applying for the benefits.", says Davis.

Davis says the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico is partly to blame for the increase in usage of food stamps when the disaster put hundreds of fisherman out of work. But it's Humphreys county, more than 200 miles from the coast, with the highest rates. A report from the Department of Human Services says more than 47% of residents in the Delta county are on SNAP. Wardell Walton is the Mayor of Belzoni. The city is the Humphreys County seat and is also known as the catfish capital of the world.

"Over the last few years the catfish industry has been slowly declining, and there's been tremendous amounts of layoffs. Those that were not laid off were subject to reduced hours of work, and so naturally, that caused and precipitated them to have to receive some type of assistance."

Since 2009 there has been a nearly five percent increase in SNAP usage in Humphreys County. At least some of the blame goes to record high grain prices and competition from imported Asian catfish which have put a dent in what Mississippi catfish farmers can afford to produce. John Davis, the Mississippi SNAP director, says for many, the program is a lifeline.

"With underemployment we find now that in today's economy and today's world we live, we see individuals who are using the program as it's intended. To transition from one employment opportunity to another."

Mississippi's unemployment rate remains around ten percent, but in some delta counties those numbers jump to 12%, 14%, or even 16%. The area is lacking industry and employment opportunity, something economic development officials say they hope to fix. Helen Sims is an evangelist and entrepreneur who lives and works in Belzoni.

Sims says, "Where is the opportunity? We could say these people are lazy. We could say they don't want to work, but then if the jobs were available, then we would have something to measure that idea."

Policy experts say SNAP, or food stamps, is one of the best ways to stimulate the economy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says every dollar spent on the program generates one dollar and eighty four cents in return. At the Piggly Wiggly in Jackson, manager Anderson Haynes says about 30% of his store's revenue comes from SNAP.

"I know more than anything, it brings in major money for us. We can keep the employees where everyone can keep a job where it won't affect them and their families. Because this day and age it's hard to find jobs", says Haynes.

While the numbers indicate high food stamp usage in Mississippi, officials say many eligible residents aren't utilizing the program. In fact, state officials say only about 68% of those who are potentially eligible actually get the benefits. Which could be an indication that Mississippi's poverty problem is worse than many think.

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