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For Many Kentuckians, Federal Food Aid Doesn't Stretch Far Enough

Brittney Patrick never thought she’d need food stamps, and once she had them, she never thought they’d be taken away.

“Food stamps are a blessing, and when they’re taken away from you it’s the worst feeling you’ve felt in your life. You never expect that to happen,” Patrick said. “If you’re already using the food bank, there’s nothing else to go get.”

A five-year study released in 2016 by Feeding America shows that more 743,0000 people in Kentucky struggle with hunger at some point during the year. But according to the Kentucky Food Bank Association, about 27 percent of those people don't qualify for SNAP because their income is too high.

Brittney Patrick falls into that group.

Patrick, 30, used to work at the post office, unloading packages and letters. The hours were long but she liked it. But in 2015, her then eight-year-old daughter Kaelin’s learning disability became too difficult to manage while working full-time. The prescription drugs Kaelin took to help her concentrate in school lead to physical ticks that sent her shoulder into jerking motion. Kaelin’s grades started to drop. Patrick quit her job to focus solely on her daughter’s health and education.

That’s when she applied for food stamps. And for two years, Patrick received around $200 in food assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. It was a big help, she said.

Then in March 2017, Patrick got married and she lost SNAP benefits. Patrick’s husband’s income pushed the family over the program's qualifying limit. Now, half of the monthly food she used to count on is gone.

“As soon as you hit the [income] level, you’re not considered too poor anymore, you can handle it,” Patrick said. “You can’t tell me that once you hit a certain amount of money a month your life is perfect, especially when it’s $2,200 a month for a family of three.”

And a large portion of the family's income comes from disability income. Patrick’s husband has neuropathy, a nerve condition that means he’ll eventually lose the ability to walk.

Renee Bryant, director of the Individual and Family Assistance Center at Fern Creek Highview United Ministries, sees situations like Patrick's every day. The center, in addition to offering help with paying bills, has a food pantry.

“We have been told we’re a lifesaver on more than one occasion,” Bryant said. “With the families that aren’t eligible for food stamps, we are that bridge.”

Patrick thinks the federal government should increase the income limit for SNAP, or else not count her husband’s disability income. She said the current rules shut the door on too many people who need help.

James Ziliak, founder of the Center for Poverty Research at the University of Kentucky, agrees. The eligibility limit for Patrick’s family of three, for instance, is $26,600 a year.

“To the extent you think the poverty line is too low, then eligibility is too low,” Zaliak said. “I would argue that our poverty line is too low, so too few Americans are eligible for SNAP.”

But there are no signs that the income limit will increase any time soon. Last year, President Trump proposed what Ziliak calls a "dramatic" rollback of SNAP eligibility. Trump also wants to push more of the cost of SNAP onto states.

SNAP's total cost in 2016 was $71 billion. Kentucky and other states pick up a small portion of the tab to help run the program, about $4.4 billion in 2016. If states' costs went up, the commonwealth would likely have to reduce the benefit or eligibility limit, according to the progressive Kentucky Center for Economic Policy.

Patrick doesn't regret quitting her job, though she'd like to get one that would allow her the flexibility to be home with her daughter after school and take care of her husband.

"She's doing awesome. At this point, the thing I can do, is to make sure she has what she needs in the future," Patrick said. "I have to do what's best for my family, what's going to keep us sane, not necessarily monetarily big."

Lisa Gillespie is WFPL's Health and Innovation Reporter.