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Food stamp system can burden grocers

Michigan retailers seek a staggered distribution plan

DETROIT -- With the flip of each calendar page, the empty aisles of K & G Food Mart are flooded with shoppers. But as the weeks wear on, the traffic slows to a trickle.

The cycle, familiar to many city grocers, has a simple explanation: The start of the month is when people get their food stamps.

A group of small retailers and wholesalers in Michigan is asking for a change in the way the state administers the federal assistance program. The merchants hope that spreading out food stamp distributions can eliminate such swings in customer traffic, which make it difficult to keep stores adequately staffed and stocked.

On Monday, the Michigan Food Policy Council is scheduled to vote on the issue as part of its recommendations to Governor Jennifer Granholm on ways to increase the number of stores selling fresh food in low-income areas.

As she wheeled her cart through K & G recently, Tamika Ealy, 22, who uses food stamps, said she tends to do most of her shopping early in the month.

''The food tends to be fresher at the beginning of the month," she said.

While store owners say their food is always fresh, they acknowledge that the selection is better on days they expect more sales. With customer purchasing so skewed, they say, they have no choice but to adjust their merchandise.

In Detroit, where more than a third of residents live below the federal poverty line, healthful food at reasonable prices can be hard to find. There is no discounter such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., and most supermarket chains have abandoned the city.

Nationally, the Food Stamp Program served 23.9 million people in 2004, with an average monthly benefit of $86 per person and $200 per household.

In Michigan, each of the 512,000 households, 1.1 million individuals, on food stamps receives them within the first nine days of the month. The funds are transferred electronically to a debit card.

Most states stagger distribution, though eight states issue everyone's benefits on the first of the month, according to the US Department of Agriculture. Of those that stagger, the number of days varies from three in Connecticut to 22 in Missouri.

Tom Wenning, general counsel of the National Grocers Association, said staggered issuance took hold as a way ''to provide some relief both for the consumer and the retailer."

But many Detroit retailers say the nine-day spread is not enough. Associated Food and Petroleum Dealers of Michigan wants the state to divide each recipient's food stamps into two payments per month, which federal law allows but no states do.

''If we could get a twice-monthly distribution it would help us maintain the product in the store," said Najib Atisha, who owns two supermarkets.

It would also help store owners with staffing levels, Atisha added. ''You can't just hire somebody for 10 days and then lay them off," he said.

Greg Person, a meat cutter at K & G, said it would help him, too. There isn't enough work for him at the end of the month, and he ends up leaving early. His boss would pay him, but ''I don't want to milk the clock," he said.

Advocates for the poor say that splitting benefits into two payments could create hardships, particularly for people who live far from a store and can't afford to get there often.

But some say they would support staggering the distribution of benefits over the whole month as a way to help grocers. That approach is advocated in the draft recommendation that the Food Policy Council will consider Monday.

Maureen Sorbet, spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Human Services, which handles the distribution of food stamps, said the department is evaluating the retailers' proposal, but is concerned about the potential costs.

Even if a new system isn't more expensive to run, it would involve initial transition costs, such as an increase in customer service calls from confused recipients, she said.

Ealy said it is important to her to be able to spend her benefits when she wants to.

''I'd rather just have it all upfront," she said.

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