Businesses Aim to Smooth Food-Stamp Cycle Grocers in the inner city complain that it's hard to run their businesses when most of the customers only make their purchases the first week of the month. That's due in large part to the cycle of the food stamps program. Now a group of Michigan retailers and wholesalers is seeking to change the way that the state administers the federal assistance program. Quinn Klinefelter of Detroit Public Radio reports.
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Businesses Aim to Smooth Food-Stamp Cycle

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Businesses Aim to Smooth Food-Stamp Cycle

Businesses Aim to Smooth Food-Stamp Cycle

Businesses Aim to Smooth Food-Stamp Cycle

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Grocers in the inner city complain that it's hard to run their businesses when most of the customers only make their purchases the first week of the month. That's due in large part to the cycle of the food stamps program. Now a group of Michigan retailers and wholesalers is seeking to change the way that the state administers the federal assistance program. Quinn Klinefelter of Detroit Public Radio reports.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Go to a grocery store in a poor neighborhood and you may find an especially long line in the early days of the month. That's because so many customers use food stamps. They get money at the start of the month, nothing later on. Many grocers in Michigan want the state to change the way it disburses food stamps. Here is Detroit Public Radio's Quinn Klinefelter.

QUINN KLINEFELTER Reporting:

Back in the day, food stamps were just that: a packet of stamps clients peeled off and used throughout each month. But now Michigan issues a kind of food stamp debit card, electronically replenishing it during the first 10 days of each month. During those days, small stores like the Indian Village Market on the East side of Detroit see a deluge of food stamp customers.

Finding help to buy groceries is a necessity for many in Detroit, where unemployment is higher than in any other large U.S. city, except hurricane ravaged New Orleans. Najib Atisha is the owner of this market, and he takes pride in keeping his aged wooden shelves and wheezing coolers well stocked. But, he says, after the first 10 days of the month, much of his clientele disappears, while his remaining produce begins to rot.

Mr. NAJIB ATISHA: If you're doing half of your monthly volume in a nine-day span, it's hard to adjust the delivery trucks. Sometimes we'll buy a product on the eighth of the month and we anticipate on ah, big traffic. And if we don't have it, it may be here a couple of days longer than it should be.

KLINEFELTER: Atisha says customers typically spend all of their food stamp allotment within a day after receiving it. He worries about keeping his shelves stocked at the beginning of the month and keeping his employees in the fold afterward.

Mr. ATISHA: It's difficult. We can't hire somebody for 10 days and then lay him off for the 20 days. So they get extra hours the first 10 days, and then the rest of the month they get a lot less hours. They don't want to work 60 hours one week and then work 25 hours the following week.

KLINEFELTER: Grocers like Atisha, say the solution lies in staggering food stamps, so they're disbursed at least twice a month. No other state has made such a change, though federal law would allow it. And it sounds like a good idea to Detroiter, Michelle Walker(ph), who says she marks the start of each month by picking her way across the market's worn tile floor to spend her entire allotment of food stamps.

Ms. MICHELLE WALKER: I have one son. So I'm speaking on mothers that have four, five, and six children - you know, it's a struggle for them. Because at the end of the month, they're already out of food. So I think they should split it. At least they will be forced to budget their stamps.

KLINEFELTER: Storeowner, Najib Atisha, calls it a dilemma for both grocers and customers' families.

Mr. ATISHA: I don't know whether it's just human nature. When the people have the money on their card, they tend to spend it all at one time. You just can't buy milk and have it home for 30 days or buy a piece of meat and have it home for 30 days.

KLINEFELTER: Lobbyists for grocers agree. The Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers of Michigan formerly petitioned the state to change the pattern of food stamp payments. But the group's president Jane Shallal says government bureaucrats fear they will be overwhelmed by a wave of worry from the roughly 470,000 Michigan households that rely on food stamps.

Ms. JANE SHALLAL (President, Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers of Michigan): When you tell a food stamp recipient you're not getting all of your money at the beginning of the month, they're going to get an influx of calls and inquiries, and this is going to increase the time that their staff has to spend in dealing with the issues.

KLINEFELTER: Still a state advisory panel is recommending to Michigan governor Jennifer Granholm that she approve changing the payment schedule. Granholm says she will consider the idea this fall while she is in the midst of her reelection campaign.

For NPR News, I'm Quinn Klinefelter in Detroit.

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