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Facing Hunger Foodbank Executive Director Cynthia Kirkhart, right, speaks with U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., left, about nutrition programs Friday, Jan. 11, 2019, in Huntington.

CHARLESTON - More than 25,000 West Virginians would lose food stamp benefits under a Trump administration proposal that would change how states determine eligibility for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

Nearly 300,000 West Virginia residents rely on SNAP, according to data from the state Department of Health and Human Resources. One-third of SNAP recipients in the state are children.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture announced in July the proposed changes that would, in part, tighten SNAP eligibility by removing automatic enrollment if an individual already applied for other state-run benefit programs, including Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).

USDA officials said the proposal could save the country $2.5 billion per year and eliminate what they said was widespread abuse of the program due to the lack of eligibility checks.

Josh Lohnes, food policy research director at West Virginia University, calculated how proposed SNAP changes would affect the state after DHHR would not publicly release its own data on the possible effects.

"People are suddenly going to lose money that they have regularly relied on to put food on their table," he said.

He added that less money in a household budget for food typically leads to families purchasing cheaper, more processed foods.

"The health outcomes will be devastating," he said.

Lohnes estimated 9% of the state's SNAP households would lose their benefits, with the cuts affecting more than 1,000 families in Berkeley, Cabell, Mercer, Raleigh and Wood counties. More than 2,000 families in Kanawha County would be impacted by the eligibility changes.

DHHR later confirmed the cuts would impact more than 25,000 SNAP recipients in the state.

Additionally, Lohnes said the proposed cuts would slice $20 million out of the state's food economy per year as people have less money to spend at local grocers.

The change would push more people to food banks and pantries, he said.

"People will still have access to food, but these (food) charities are not funded by the state," Lohnes said. "They're funded by churches and small hollers who are suffering themselves from economic rollback and unemployment."

Cynthia Kirkhart runs the Facing Hunger Foodbank in Huntington, which serves 12 West Virginia counties and nearby parts of Kentucky.

She and her food distribution partners are watching closely the USDA's proposal as changes to SNAP will ultimately raise the need for food.

"We have 'X' amount of food to distribute, and when cuts like this come along, we start planning right now how we can push food into an area," Kirkhart said.

"Just because benefits are cut doesn't mean I get an equal cut in resources to distribute."

3.1 million across the U.S.

Nationally, the changes to the policy - known as broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE) - would cut an estimated 3.1 million Americans from food stamp eligibility.

SNAP is the nation's largest food assistance program, and the majority of its recipients are children, the elderly or people who struggle with a disability.

The benefit provides West Virginians with about $1.29 per meal, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C.

BBCE rules vary from state to state, and along with some automatic eligibility, the program permits states to raise SNAP income eligibility limits and slowly roll back benefits from families who build up income.

West Virginia in 2018 increased its income limit for SNAP from 130% to 200% of the federal poverty line ($25,750 for a family of four).

The proposed changes to SNAP would also cause about 265,000 students to lose eligibility for free meals, according to Lisa Davis, the senior vice president of Share Our Strength's No Kid Hungry Campaign.

Children eligible for SNAP are automatically approved for a free school meal program without filling out a separate application. Under the administration's proposal, those children would have to apply separately to continue to get those meals.

Few lawmakers speak out

West Virginia lawmakers have been mostly silent on the proposed changes during the USDA's public comment time that ends Sept. 23.

With the exception of Sen. Joe Manchin, the state's U.S. senators and representatives did not return a request for comment.

"I am against this rule change and will do whatever I can to protect West Virginia families, children, seniors and people with disabilities access to healthy and nutritious food," said Manchin, D-W.Va.

Huntington Mayor Steve Williams earlier this summer joined 70 mayors of American cities in a letter that condemned the proposed SNAP cuts.

Williams was the only West Virginia mayor to sign the letter.

West Virginia made its own changes to the SNAP program in 2018 when Gov. Jim Justice signed a bill into law that would impose work requirements on certain adults receiving benefits through SNAP.

The legislation, which went into effect last year, requires an able-bodied adult between the ages of 18 and 49 - without dependents - to work, volunteer or participate in workforce training programs for 20 hours per week to receive SNAP benefits.

As of the end of 2018, at least 8,300 people in 18 counties had lost access to the program, according to data from DHHR shared by Public Integrity.

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