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Mississippi Leads U.S. In Reliance On Food Stamps

The number of Americans who use food stamps is now close to 46 million, or 15 percent of the population. The government program that provides food stamps is formally known as SNAP, for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. And the number of people who depend on it to buy groceries has grown substantially, even since the recession was officially declared over, back in June of 2009.

The state of Mississippi has the highest percentage of its population — 24 percent — on food stamps of any state in the country. (It's also the most obese state, with 7 of 10 adults in the state either overweight or obese.) That means the government is feeding one Mississippian in five right now.

All Things Considered host Robert Siegel yesterday interviewed John Davis, director of the SNAP program in Mississippi, to find out why so many people count on food stamps there.

"The economic downturn of course is a contributing factor," Davis tells Siegel. "And we know that from a historical standpoint anytime there is a decrease in the job availability, there's going to be an increase in our program."

A family of four in the program receives about $668 a month in food assistance, or roughly $150 a week, Davis says. That can go a long way in feeding a family of four, but he notes "this program is a supplemental program. It was never intended to fully fund the families in need for food."

Some of those families have joined the program in the wake of the the BP oil spill in the Gulf and damage that it had on the fishing and tourism industries. "We track those numbers and we find that there was an increase based on the oil spill," Davis says.

He staff did outreach along the coast, and "we had industries that were either closed or went into hibernation," he says. "Therefore, it was just a ripple effect. If the fishermen weren't fishing, then there were other industries affected as well."

SNAP, meanwhile, has also faced criticism about eligibility, illegal trading and fraud issues. But enrollment around the country continues to climb. For more on food stamp participation in other parts of the country, check out this handy interactive graphic by students at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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