POSTED: Monday, April 28, 2014 - 9:15pm
UPDATED: Wednesday, November 19, 2014 - 12:06pm
Tyler (KETK) — The number of Americans depending on food stamps to feed themselves and their families is at an all time high in the United States; around 47 million Americans use the federal program known as SNAP. The program recently came under fire after a high profile case of food stamp fraud made national headlines.
He's known as "The Food Stamp Surfer": Californian Jason Greenslate recently caused national outrage when Fox News exposed him for using tax payer dollars to buy lobster, sushi and alcohol with his food stamp card.
So KETK set out to uncover if this kind of abuse is happening in East Texas.
The federal government spends $400 million dollars per month on Texas food benefits or SNAP which stands for "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program."
The average SNAP household of three receives $278 per month. In order to receive this monthly stipend from the government, an applicant's household income must fall 130 percent below the poverty line.
Lisa Simmons works at a food bank in Longview. She knows first-hand know hard it is to regulate the SNAP system.
"There could be some better regulations based on who receives the food stamps and how they go about purchasing the food items."
A 2013 SNAP fraud investigation revealed that in Gregg, Rusk and Smith counties alone, food stamp abuse totaled over $101,000.
Linda Edwards Gockel works for the state SNAP office.
"It's always bad news if somebody is taking advantage of the system because fist of all it's dishonest activity. It harms the program..for people who need these benefits legitimately and of course it's a waste of tax payer dollars."
As we mentioned, the "N" in SNAP stands for nutritious. The SNAP program is meant to provide nutritious food to families who cannot afford it. Banned items include: beer, liquor, tobacco, ice cream, soda, candy, seafood and steak.
Gockel says Texas the regulations here in Texas are among the toughest in the nation.
" The state of Texas tries very hard to put very rigorous requirements in place. We don't allow a lot of things that other states do."
Larger grocery stores in the state of Texas like Kroger, Super One Foods and Wal-Mart have automated systems in place that won't allow items like beer, junk food, and cigarettes to be purchased using a SNAP card. But, at smaller convenience stores we spoke with several managers that said since the SNAP card looks so much like a debit card, it's almost impossible to regulate..and that's how we found some East Texans were cheating the system."
We spoke with several East Texas residents anonymously who admitted to using their SNAP cards to buy potato chips, ice cream, even beer and cigarettes.
When we asked them how they got away with it they replied by simply swiping the card.
Simmons says the abuse is disheartening.
"It's a food stamp card, it should be used for food purposes..not as a credit card."
State Representative David Simpson says food stamp regulations are a problem he's been working on for years.
"It is very hard to regulate..and we're asking store owners to be enforcers..and there's always a workaround for smart people.."
Simpson says government handouts like the SNAP program encourage too much reliance on the government and don't encourage two important American liberties: independence and freedom.
"We're encouraging irresponsibility and abuse..and it's hurting the people who really need programs like this."
Simpson says the solution lies in the hands of the community, not Uncle Sam.
"We're looking to the government as the savior of all our ills..whereas our neighbor..and churches are doing a good work."
First time offenders of SNAP card abuse can face criminal prosecution and they can lose their SNAP benefits for up to one year. Repeat offenders can have their benefits revoked forever.