Research Finds Gaps in Retailers Accepting Food Stamps; Could Be Affecting Program’s Effectiveness

June 30, 2014

This article was originally published on the website of Ohio State's College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences. 

June 30, 2014

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- New analysis from economists in Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences finds that the number of authorized stores in Ohio that serve participants in the U.S. Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, has not followed a consistent growth pattern in the state to match program enrollment, possibly impacting the program’s ability to meet the needs of participants.

The economists found that SNAP-authorized retailers are mostly clustered in the state’s large urban centers even though rural populations have seen equal increases in the proportion of residents who are SNAP participants over the last decade.

While much attention has focused on low benefit levels as a reason for program ineffectiveness, the Ohio State researchers conclude that limited access to SNAP-authorized stores, particularly in rural areas, also may hinder the program’s effectiveness.

In a recently published policy brief, “The Supplemental Nutrition Program and Its Effect on Food Insecurity,” Mark Partridge, a professor in the college’s Department of Agricultural, Environmental and Development Economics (AEDE), and Clare Cho, a doctoral student in the department, examine the growth of the SNAP program in Ohio with a particular focus on participant enrollment and SNAP-authorized store presence by county. The brief was published through the work of the C. William Swank Program in Rural-Urban Policy, an Ohio State research initiative chaired by Partridge.

“As funding for SNAP has grown, it has become increasingly important to determine whether the program reduces food insecurity,” Cho said. “Our finding that most SNAP stores in Ohio are clustered in urban areas while some of the largest increases in SNAP participation rates occurred in rural areas could partially explain why the SNAP program has an uncertain effect on food insecurity in the state.”

Since 2008, SNAP participation at all levels -- national, state and by Ohio county -- has increased. SNAP is authorized through the Farm Bill and provides support to millions of Americans each year. Nationally, enrollment in the program increased by 50 percent from 2001 to 2005 and by 70 percent from 2007 to 2011.

At the state level, in 2002, 9.8 percent of Ohioans were eligible to participate in the food assistance program, while in 2012 this figure reached 16 percent. Based on this data, Ohio is now the 10th most food insecure state in the nation, having previously ranked 30th in 2000.

Partridge and Cho found that SNAP enrollment increases in Ohio have varied by county, though all counties have experienced an increase in program enrollment since 2000. The lowest increase in SNAP participation occurred in Delaware and Holmes counties, with a 2 percent enrollment increase in the program from 2000 to 2010. The greatest increase in program enrollment during that period occurred in Vinton County, with a 16 percent increase in program participants.

Though enrollment in the program increased in all Ohio counties, the researchers found that the number of SNAP-authorized retailers has not matched this growth pattern.

“In regard to SNAP-authorized establishments, we found that these stores tend to cluster, particularly in areas with large populations, even though all counties in Ohio experienced an increase in SNAP enrollees over the last decade. It’s not clear why in counties such as Scioto County, the number of SNAP-authorized stores would not increase in response to the growing number of participants, especially since the overall population increased as well,” Cho said. 

In the U.S. there is much debate on the effectiveness of the SNAP program. By offering a lens on SNAP retail participation rates in Ohio compared to where SNAP program enrollment is occurring, the authors examine a key aspect of the program that may be hindering its effectiveness: program participants’ access to SNAP-authorized retailers. This finding may be critical in understanding how SNAP participants in rural settings may be prevented from fully participating in the program.

“Although additional research on accessibility of SNAP-authorized stores needs to be conducted, the distribution of stores in relation to the location of low-income residents in Ohio further indicates the need to improve transportation access of disadvantaged households for work, childcare, education and food,” Partridge said.

“In the recent debate on whether rural poverty is overstated because of lower costs of living, other factors have been largely ignored, such as longer commutes and limited access to services such as grocery stores,” he said. “Oftentimes in rural areas, there are large areas of land without stores or with few options to choose from, as seen by the distribution of SNAP-authorized stores in Morgan County.”

In their research, Partridge and Cho found that while Morgan County had a food insecurity rate of 20 percent in 2010, ranking it as one of the top five most food insecure Ohio counties, there are significantly large areas in the county that lack SNAP-authorized stores.

The Swank Program is supported by the college's outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. The program identifies and organizes research focused on rural-urban policy and rural and regional development.

To read the full policy brief, visit go.osu.edu/hyD.