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Buffalo region ranks fifth in nation in food stamp use

Somebody on food stamps moves. Or, they make more – or less – money at a job. Or maybe they have a new child, or one that moved away.

Imagine questions like those – being asked over the phone, 600 to 800 times a day.

That’s what happens in a new call center, on the third floor of the Rath Building, where county workers field questions from some of the thousands of recipients of SNAP – what used to be called food stamps.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is being used more than ever in Erie County, which has seen growth in all but one year since 2005.

The Buffalo Niagara region ranked fifth out of the nation’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas in 2014, for the proportion of local households getting food assistance.

The new Erie County call center debuted in September, and by mid-November had already taken 26,485 phone calls from SNAP users, a county administrator said.

“Our goal is, how do we improve access to services that people need?” said Marie Cannon, Erie County’s first deputy social services commissioner for family independence.

The call center, which was modeled on another one in county government, is making life easier for county SNAP users, who previously had to travel to the Rath Building or leave phone messages and wait for responses.

Now, said Cannon:

“If they call during the day – they will be able to talk to someone.”

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Last year, Erie County’s proportion of food stamp-receiving households was greater than New York State’s – 17 percent, compared to 15.6 percent for the state, a Buffalo News analysis of census data showed.

In Buffalo, the proportion of households receiving food stamps was higher than five years ago, but largely unchanged from the year before that, at 35 percent.

In Cheektowaga, the proportion of households getting food stamps last year – 14 percent – was nearly double the rate of five years earlier.

Hunger remains a problem in the region, said Dr. Carol A. DeNysschen, chair of the department of health, nutrition and dietetics at SUNY Buffalo State.

“Absolutely, it still exists,” said DeNysschen, who is also on the board of directors of the Food Bank of Western New York. “I think we’ve done a great job in addressing it – but I think it still exists ... There are pockets out there.”

Increases in the share of county households using food stamps could be due to a few factors.

“One of the biggest things is, we’ve educated people that this service exists,” DeNysschen said.

She also said that there is not an emotional or societal cost to using SNAP, as there might have been in the past for older versions of food stamps.

“Because the stigma is not as prevalent, people are utilizing it more,” said DeNysschen, an associate professor at the college. “That is the goal of the program – to get people to utilize it.”

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The call center for the nutrition assistance program was modeled on another one in county government, said Cannon, in the social services department.

“Our Medicaid actually has a call center, and that’s what we patterned this from,” she said.

There are 83,574 households in Erie County currently getting the supplemental nutrition assistance, Cannon said.

New applications for the program this year remained relatively consistent with last year’s numbers, Cannon said.

The Buffalo Niagara region’s high rank among top 50 cities for food stamp use – fifth in the nation – is tied to the region’s poverty, said DeNysschen, at Buffalo State.

The News analysis also showed:

• Out of the nation’s 50 biggest metropolitan areas, nearly half – 21 regions – saw increases in the number of food stamp recipients last year, as a percentage of the number of households, over the year before.

• Among the top 50 metropolitan areas in the country, the Buffalo Niagara region ranked in the top 10 – in 10th place – for the size of growth in the percentage of local households receiving food stamps last year over 2013. The change in the region was half of a percentage point, from 15.9 percent to 16.4 percent of households getting the assistance.

The biggest increase among the 50 largest metro areas was in Jacksonville, Fla., where a 2 percentage point increase occurred, from 13.1 percent to 15.1.

• Over the past decade, the year with the single biggest increase in food stamp recipients in Erie County was 2008, when the percentage of households receiving the benefits climbed by more than 2 percentage points – to 13.8 percent.

But, the overall picture of food assistance in the country might be changing somewhat.

Some are seeing less of the benefit, and there are fewer meals being served in some places, according to a report released this fall by the Food Bank for New York City.

The downstate report – “Hunger Cliff NYC” – claims that in the wake of reductions in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in late 2013, residents of New York City have gotten 116 million fewer meals than they would have.

That has meant more people at places like food pantries, the report stated.

email: cvogel@buffnews.com