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Maine Food Stamp Recipients Brace for Cuts
10/11/2013   Reported By: Jay Field

In a just a few weeks, on Nov. 1, individuals and familes getting benefits under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - known as SNAP - will see their monthly food assistance drop. That's when federal stimulus dollars - used to expand the program during the recession - run out. It could be a tough change for many of the nearly 250,000 Mainers who rely on the program. As Jay Field reports, retail grocers, who've benefited from the growth of the SNAP program, may also face an adjustment.

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Eighteen percent of all Maine residents now receive SNAP benefits. The money starts hitting people's electronic benefit cards on the 10th of the month, at midnight.

It's October 10th. The SNAP dollars have been flowing for about 18 hours. And an 18-wheeler is backing up to the loading dock at Lincoln's Country Store in Warren.

The truck, from Associated Grocers of New England, is filled with an extra-large shipment of meat. More than 6,000 people a month get food stamps in Knox County. Many of them spend those SNAP dollars here at Lincoln's because of what the store does with all this meat.

"We've got bone-in chicken, boneless chicken. We've got the bigger bags. Usually, it's 10 pounds or more, you get a better deal on that," says Heather Ludwig, the store's general manager.

Ludwig shows off some of the better bargains inside the meat case. A family pack of bone-in chicken goes for $1.79 a pound.
"We low-ball our meat as low as we can," she says. "We try to gauge it for the first week of the release of food stamps."

Ludwig says the store offers its monthly, two-week "truckload sale" to help customers in need. "We're not out to take their food stamps," she says. "We're out to give them a better deal, so they can feed their families and fill their freezers for the winter."

But it's also clear the strategy has made good business sense.

Jay Field: "On balence, has the SNAP program been good for the bottom line of the business?"

Heather Ludwig: "It definitely has. Like I said, we started off with a one-week and we saw the success in that. And we had a few customers who said, 'I don't get mine till after the sale is over with. How can I get that deal?'"

Ludwig says she doesn't measure SNAP sales separately from the rest of the monthly transactions. She says she's confident the store will continue to do well, even after the five percent reduction in SNAP benefits.

In 2008, Washington sent $196 million in food stamp benefits to Maine. By last year, the number had jumped to $376 million. Shelley Doak is executive director of the Maine Grocers Association. Doak's group represents big grocery chains, like Hannaford's, smaller chain's like IGA, and independents.

I asked Doak whether her members were concerned about the upcoming reduction in SNAP benefits. "I haven't heard anything from our members regarding the benefit level change that's being imposed on the SNAP recipients," she says.

The SNAP cut takes effect Nov. 1. In Maine, that means a family of four will see a $36 drop in benefits per month.


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