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Tornado fallout: More Alabamians needed food assistance this year than anywhere else

Posted Aug 06 2011 10:30am
The number of Alabamians using food stamps this year shot through the roof, according to a recently released USDA report.

Those participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in Alabama went from 868,000 in April to 1,762,000 in May alone. And most folks here know why. It was the month that history-making tornadoes swooped down upon Alabama communities and snatched away homes, lives and sources of income.

But David Buys, Ph.D., a post-doctoral fellow in the Department of Medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham , says the USDA numbers represent allocations not actual numbers of people.

The SNAP program has a special allocation for persons needing assistance in the wake of a disaster. This program is called D-SNAP and the newly-released numbers include those allocations as well, he says.

After the April 27 storm, there was an increase of 550,000 new Alabamians signed up for D-SNAP, according to Buys’ research. Existing SNAP participants who live in storm-affected areas also qualified for D-SNAP. They were included in the numbers, occupying an allocation as a regular recipient of SNAP and a recipient of D-SNAP. So the numbers of actual persons receiving assistance for May actually are closer to 1,425,000 rather than 1,762,000, Buys says.

But even before the storm many Alabamians needed food assistance, Buys says. Alabama has the highest rate of very low food security, with 6.8 percent of the population unsure where their next meal will come from.

“Alabama has seen an increase in SNAP enrollment each month since October 2007,” he says. “This is correlated with the recession. Obviously, we do have a need for food assistance. The tornadoes just exacerbated the problem.”

Of the 43 Alabama counties affected by the storm, 36 have poverty rates above the national average.

Buys suggests that Alabama’s food security issue is the residual effects of intergenerational disadvantage. Poverty in the state appears correlated with the slavery era, he says, and notes that the places in Alabama that had high slavery populations today are among the poorest, a pattern that's represented in other Southern states.

On top of that, 55.78 percent of Alabama children qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch during the school year. When school is out for summer, many of them have to fend for themselves and often go hungry or are left at the mercy of the community, Buys said.

Kids who are hungry aren’t as healthy and don’t perform as well in school, he says. This means that, unless they get the food and help they need, their cycle of poverty can be almost inescapable.

On the other end of the life cycle, older adults are vulnerable to food insecurity, Buys says. Of persons 65 or older in Alabama, 23.9 percent reported that at some point in the last year, they did not have enough money to buy food.

“It is an endless cycle,” Buys says. “A cycle of cycles that is hard to break.”
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