More than one in 10 Clark County residents are using food stamps to help weather economic uncertainty during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
At the end of April, there were 890,603 people statewide using the state Food Assistance Program or federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which is called Basic Food in Washington. In Clark County, 56,578 people, or 11.6 percent of the population, are using government food benefits.
New applications for these benefits peaked around the second week of April and then began leveling off, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services.
Spokeswoman Norah West said the agency doesn’t anticipate another surge in applications barring unemployment benefits running out, but it does expect to serve the higher caseload for some time.
During the Great Recession, the need for food stamps slowly ramped up and then gradually decreased as the economy improved.
“The main difference is, this is a really abrupt crisis,” West said.
Caseloads were declining and had reached a low before the novel coronavirus pandemic began.
Similar to the trend with food stamps, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families and State Family Assistance saw a sudden increase in clients. Also, clients are not cut off if they go beyond the normal 60-month time limit.
Cash assistance programs have much lower caseloads due to different requirements. In Clark County, 4,200 people use one of these two cash assistance programs.
Washington was part of an early pilot program that allows people using food stamps to pay for groceries online. Walmart and Amazon are the only two participating retailers in the state. Both accept Electronic Benefits Transfer cards, the debit card Basic Food clients use to spend their benefits, as payment for online purchases to be picked up or delivered. Cash benefits can also be used at Walmart for household items. Benefits, however, cannot be used to pay for delivery fees.
West said online ordering helps people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to get to a store to buy groceries. The program could expand to other retailers, which have to apply through the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The agency is operating the pilot in 18 states and the District of Columbia, with another 18 states coming on board soon. Other grocers may already allow SNAP cardholders to shop online and then pay for purchases at pickup.
Locally, Fred Meyer accepts EBT payments for pickup orders at its seven Clark County locations. The cards can also be used at QFC, which is owned by the same parent company and has one location in east Vancouver.
According to its website, Rosauers in Ridgefield accepts EBT cards as payment for online orders.
Farmers Market benefit
Despite its scaled-down size, the Vancouver Farmers Market is offering a larger match this season for EBT card holders. In previous years, the market offered a $5 match on produce purchases. This year, the market is matching up to $20 in fresh fruits and vegetables, its highest match ever.
“It just so happens this is a time where people need that now more than ever,” said Stephanie Haynes, partnerships and programs manager at the market. “We would love to be able to serve those people.”
Over 100 markets statewide are participating in the SNAP Market Match, which is funded through the Legislature and administered by the Department of Health’s Office of Healthy and Safe Communities. While customers can use their EBT card on any grocery item at the market, the match is just for fresh fruits and vegetables.
Also — thanks to a startup grant for the Vancouver Farmers Market’s online market — EBT customers who order online and pick up their groceries at the Historic Slocum House will receive a $10 discount. Combining the match and the discount translates to potentially $40 worth of produce for $10, a $30 discount.
It’s a way to stretch government food benefits. Haynes said it’s also a good option for people who don’t feel safe venturing inside a grocery store. Many Basic Food participants are seniors and people with disabilities.