WASHINGTON – Getting to the grocery is just one challenge for Arizona’s “food desert” poor, who have seen some state services cut as demand for services is increasing.
Budget cuts have forced the Arizona Department of Economic Security to close 42 offices around the state since 2009, leaving the remaining 144 offices to serve much larger areas.
The 2009 budget also caused the Department of Health Services to eliminate a program that had provided emergency food boxes to about 12,000 seniors in the state.
And the number of people enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the program formerly known as food stamps — has grown by 32,000 since May 2010, to more than 1 million today.
While there have been no cuts to direct food-assistance benefits, like SNAP or the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, state officials concede that the lowered level of services is a challenge for some.
“You have to spread the pain as broadly as you can,” said Steve Meissner, spokesman for the Department of Economic Security. “Those are tough choices you have to make. These are the reality of the tough choices that politicians talk about.”
Meissner said the reductions in programs and office locations have forced the agency to become more efficient in delivering services. Many applications for assistance are now online and or can be completed over the phone, for example.
But advocates say that can pose a challenge for low-income families who may not have a computer or a phone.
“Does it mean some (people in) rural areas have to travel?” Meissner asked. “Yes it does, but we are also doing the best at continuing services.”
He said that most of the office closures were in urban areas: 13 rural offices closed and 29 offices in metro areas were shuttered.
But an official with the Arizona Community Action Association stressed that office closures in rural areas make it harder for people to file for services, regardless of online options.
“In rural areas it (access) is an issue people don’t think of,” said Katie Kahle, program manager for ACAA. “Bigger issues are that there are no services to help them get to healthy food sources.”
Officials with the state health department say that while they have begun to look at ways to improve access to healthy food, they face the same budget challenges.
Sharon Sass, registered dietitian with the department, voiced concern for rural communities with low access to groceries and social services. But she said there are programs, most of which are federally funded, aimed at shoring up food-access issues.
In October 2009, for example, the health department used about $9 million in federal funds to begin providing fresh fruit and vegetable vouchers to WIC participants, in addition to other services. The program offers vouchers worth $6 to $12 every month to eligible families to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, Sass said.
“Particularly in rural areas and the reservations, accessing healthy food is an issue,” Sass said.