CHARLESTON — In 1961, a McDowell County family were the first recipients of a new federal program commonly called “food stamps.”

As part of a pilot program spearheaded by Pres. John F. Kennedy, the couple helped set the course for a food assistance initiative that has grown consistently since then, now helping almost 45 million people nationwide and more than 320,000 in West Virginia.

McDowell County continues to lead the state in the percentage of residents living in poverty, the number of people receiving the benefit, which is now called SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) per capita as well as the percentage of students who qualify for school lunch assistance (almost 100 percent).

But some fear that a proposed Trump Administration $193 billion cut in the program over the next 10 year will hurt people who need help for a basic need.

“The SNAP benefit issuance is a resource to provide food and nutrition and promotes good health to infants, children and household compositions,” said Jessica N. Holstein, communications specialist with the state Department of Health and Human Recourses (DHHR), which oversees the SNAP program.

Any cuts to the program will hurt, she said.

“The West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources will be exploring the impact of any changes on federal funding of SNAP,” she said. “Any change of funding at the federal level will affect West Virginia’s ability to provide these services to vulnerable citizens.”

That impact could be felt by thousands of local families.

Holstein said that Mercer County currently has 7,569 customers receiving SNAP benefits and McDowell County has 4,046.

“The average amount of monthly SNAP benefits per recipient is $203.20,” she said.

Those on the front lines of helping feed the hungry know full well what a problem it is, said Craig Hammond, director of the Bluefield Union Mission.

“We served over 6,000 meals during the month of May,” he said. “We gave food baskets to 581 families.”

Hammond said with a national deficit approaching $20 trillion, something needs to be done to cut back on spending.

“Instead of cutting money for food, you could cut non-essential things,” he said, adding that those cuts would hurt the elderly, who can’t get out and find employment.

“We don’t have the economic opportunities here where if you were the recipients of cuts you could find good jobs,” he said. “This region would feel it much worse than other regions.”

Another factor to consider, he said, is the economic impact from SNAP recipients.

“You would see fewer transactions at grocery stores, which employ people,” he said. “It does have a ripple effect. It’s not just the person, it’s the local resources as well.”

According to the DHHR, almost $900,000 a month comes into McDowell County through SNAP and about $1.8 million in Mercer County.

Hammond said when programs like SNAP are cut, communities have to help.

“The private sector will have to help the charitable organizations pick up the slack,” he said. “We know we would be a lot busier.”

Del. Ed Evans, D-McDowell County, is also concerned about any possible cuts and agrees that it hurts those who need help as well as local economies.

“I think it would be tragic,” he said. “There is an obvious need. We have many single mothers who have limited education and skills. Employment is difficult to find here as it is.”

Evans said the need is so obvious that he doesn’t understand why the program would be targeted.

“Is it (SNAP) necessary? Oh my gosh, yes,” he said.

Evans said he was recently called by a single mother who could not make ends meet enough to keep food on the table all month.

“I referred her to the Five Loaves and Two Fishes food bank (in Kimball),” he said, adding that it’s not usually a matter of people not trying to help themselves.

Evans said the proposed cuts also bother him because he is seeing what he thinks is an answer to the poverty that leads to the need for SNAP benefits being cut in West Virginia.

He is referring to a budget being supported by the House that includes cuts to career and technical college (CTC) programs.

“Poverty is a vicious thing,” he said. “It’s a cycle that will be passed down. You can break the cycle with education, but not by cutting money from education.”

Evans said these single mothers can learn skills through the CTC programs, and get a job to support their families.

“Education is the key,” he said.

The federal government currently spends about $70 billion a year on SNAP, a figure that may drop, depending on what version of the proposed cuts is eventually passed.

Recipients of SNAP use an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, provided by private contractors. The SNAP food stamp benefits are directly deposited into the household’s EBT card account each month.

The cards can be used at food retailers and some farmers’ markets.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, which administers SNAP, to be eligible, an individual’s net monthly income cannot exceed $990. That rises to $2,025 for a family of four.

Other factors are also involved in eligibility, including property ownership.

The USDA also has rules households must follow related to the items they can and cannot buy with SNAP benefits.

The things they cannot buy include wine, beer, liquor, cigarettes or any tobacco product. Certain nonfood items like soaps, paper products, household supplies, and pet foods cannot be purchased with the EBT cards.

Hot foods, food items that are consumable in the store as well as vitamins and medicine are also barred from purchase.

— Contact Charles Boothe at cboothe@bdtonline.com

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