Food Stamp Cuts Leave Rural Areas, And Their Grocers, Reeling : The Salt In communities grappling with high unemployment, grocery stores serve many customers who rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to get by. Some stores are estimating that their sales might fall between 5 and 10 percent now that the government has reduced the benefits.

Food Stamp Cuts Leave Rural Areas, And Their Grocers, Reeling

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Most grocery stores will be bustling this weekend, as families stock up for Thanksgiving. But in many rural areas, grocers are worried. That's because as of November 1st, Congress has reduced SNAP benefits, also known as food stamps. In Illinois, a family of three will now receive $29 less each month, about what it would cost to buy a 10-pound turkey and a few side dishes.

Mike Moen of member station WNIJ has this story.

MIKE MOEN, BYLINE: It's the start of the evening rush at the Countryside Market in Belvidere, a small city in northern Illinois. Customers are making their way to the checkout lanes before braving the heavy winds and rain outside. Some shoppers here are loading up on staples like milk and eggs, while others have Thanksgiving dinner on their minds.

Meghan Collins won't be doing a whole turkey this year. Some of that has to do with having fewer guests. But she also says the economy is forcing her to spend less.

MEGHAN COLLINS: My work has been cut. I'm working half the hours I used to work. So, yeah, I'm making half of what I made last year.

MOEN: That could be bad news for stores like Countryside. They already are bracing for the ripple effect from the recent reduction in SNAP benefits. It's the first Thanksgiving since a temporary increase in those benefits expired. Congress had included the expanded aid in a 2009 stimulus package aimed at helping businesses survive the recession.

Countryside manager Craig Schultz says in a community still grappling with high unemployment, many of his customers rely on the food assistance program to get by. Schultz notes they're not sure yet just how much the reduction has cut into their bottom line.

CRAIG SCHULTZ: It hasn't been soon enough for us to really see or feel the effect of it.

MOEN: But over time, the store says sales might fall between five and 10 percent. While that plays out, Schultz wonders if they will sell fewer turkeys this year.

SCHULTZ: Hopefully not because I got a whole freezer full of them.

MOEN: To make things a little more affordable, the store has cut some of its prices. Lots of grocers in Illinois may share Schultz's concerns about reduced spending. Some 16 percent of state residents used to have benefits. That's roughly two percentage points above the national average.

Those cuts in federal benefits may be felt most in rural parts. That's because USDA data from 2010 shows a widening gap in participation levels between rural and urban areas. Rural residents are using more aid, while city residents are using less.

John Anderson is an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. He says it's too early to forecast how much of a pinch food retailers might feel in the coming days. But he says there is real concern out there.

JOHN ANDERSON: In many rural areas around the country, we do have, proportionately, maybe a higher participation in the SNAP program. And a lot of that gets spent locally, obviously, because that's where it can be spent, there in those local grocery stores.

MOEN: Anderson says a couple of things might happen. Recipients could end up spending less on food and cut out portions of their holiday meal. Or, he says...

ANDERSON: The other thing we may see is a change in the kind of things people buy. Maybe there are some substitutions they can make and things of that nature to make those dollars go further.

MOEN: For example, a trip to the barber shop or shoe store might be sacrificed to buy a Thanksgiving dessert instead.

John Elliot is a regional spokesman for Kroger, the nation's largest grocery store chain. He says they're monitoring spending patterns in various states. But he says they do believe people affected by the situation will do all they can to put as much food on the table as possible.

JOHN ELLIOT: What I think they'll likely do is cut discretionary spending first. And I realize for many of those households, they may not have a lot of discretionary funds. But they'll still have to reshuffle priorities. And I suspect that purchases for food will continue to be a priority.

MOEN: And whether SNAP recipients spend less on food or other items, retailers will notice some sort of effect several years after the benefits hike that was intended to give them an economic boost. For NPR News, I'm Mike Moen in DeKalb, Illinois.

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