The Idaho Senate Health and Welfare Committee needed to push aside the rest of its agenda late Monday to clear the decks for a robust two-hour discussion of food stamps.
Actual "stamps" haven't been used in years, but the moniker has stuck to what the government calls SNAP—or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Approximately 230,000 Idahoans currently access some kind of food assistance, and according to Russ Barron, administrator with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, his department processes as many as 10,000 applications and considers 15,000 re-certifications every month.
"We don't expect these numbers to decrease anytime soon," Nampa Republican Rep. Christy Perry told the Senate Committee Monday. "I realize that a good many of us have quite a bit of angst over food stamps. I share many of those same concerns. But this bill is about the process."
In particular, Perry was presenting a bill that would stagger the distribution of food stamp funds to Idaho applicants. A few years ago, the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare suggested that all the funds be distributed on one day in order to save the state some money. But Perry said the single day of distribution pushes thousands of Idaho families into grocery stores shortly after midnight on the first of the month and has led to "massive congestion."
Testimony from the public became heated and, quite often, emotional.
Dawn Phipps broke into tears when she told lawmakers of how she started shopping in the middle of the night and even out of town when she was shamed by other citizens and even food store clerks when she showed her SNAP card to pay for her food.
"We're out there on the first of the month because, quite simply, we're out of food," said Phipps. "Do you know what it's like when your son comes home and asks to bring a snack to school and you can't because your cupboards are bare? Do you know what it's like when you can't bring in anything to a pot luck to your workplace?"
Phipps - who was employed as a legal assistant in the Idaho Attorney General's Office from 2011 until January of this year - told lawmakers that many SNAP recipients "have jobs and take responsibility but they have families who need to eat."
Matt Wissel told the Senate committee that he was a Canyon County farmer who provides fresh vegetables to Albertsons, Paul's, Winco and Walmart.
"But when Winco needed more food to take care all of their extra customers at the beginning of the month, I couldn't provide it," said Wissel. "And you know what they did? They turned to California and Washington. I lost all of that business."
The biggest stumbling block for lawmakers was the price tag: The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare estimated that it would cost more than $600,000 to implement the change.
And while the measure passed through the committee on a 6-3 vote, lawmakers agreed that the cost might be the biggest barrier when the bill is taken up by the full Senate.