More than four of 10 Kansans eligible for food stamps are not receiving them, according to a report released Tuesday.
"Allowing families access to nutritious meals is the cornerstone of a healthy society, and food stamps help ensure a wholesome diet for thousands of Kansas children," said Gary Brunk, executive director of Kansas Action for Children.
The child advocacy group's report says 43 percent of low-income Kansans aren't taking advantage of food stamp benefits for which they could be eligible. That means state officials should improve efforts to reach low-income families. The group also recommended making it easier to apply for food stamps and eliminating an asset test, which requires families to spend down cash resources to meet income eligibility requirements.
Nationwide, the food stamp program helps feed more than 24 million people per month. It is a federal program overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture but is administered in Kansas by the state Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services.
In fiscal 2004, an average 167,971 Kansans per month received food stamp benefits; nearly half of those were children. The total amount distributed in Kansas was $154 million, and the average monthly benefit was $76.45, the group's study found.
In 2001, Kansas was the 13th lowest-ranked state in terms of food stamp participation. But Dennis Priest, an SRS administrator who oversees the food stamp program in Kansas, said the state since had improved enough to be in the middle of the pack.
He said that while participation had increased by 6 percent or more over the past three years, more outreach is necessary.
"We have definitely made some strides in that area," Priest said.
The state has enlisted the aid of Dillon Stores and the Kansas Food Bank to help get information to people about food stamps, he said. Still, many people who are eligible for assistance refuse it because of the stigma associated with receiving "welfare."
"We are trying to get food stamps out of the general picture of a welfare program when really it is there to help people who need to improve their nutrition," Priest said.
In fact, stamps are no longer used in the program. Instead, recipients use plastic cards similar to credit cards.
County-by-county participation rates vary greatly. In Douglas County, just 31.56 percent of 9,410 potentially eligible individuals participate, according to the Kansas Action for Children study.
Priest said Douglas County's relatively low rate of participation was because of the large number of students who earn low incomes but are not eligible for food stamps because they are dependents of their parents.
Of the 2,191 people who could be eligible in Franklin County, 59 percent were receiving food stamps, the study found. Of 1,220 people eligible in Jefferson County, 41 percent participated, and 52 percent of Leavenworth County's 4,763 eligible people participated.
People earning gross salaries of as much as 130 percent of the federal poverty level could be eligible for food stamps. For a family of four, that would be a gross income of $2,043 per month.
Brunk, with Kansas Action for Children, also noted that increasing food stamp participation would help the overall economy. A one-third increase in the use of food stamps would increase economic activity in Kansas by about $60 million per year, according to the USDA.
The food stamp report is available at www.kac.org.