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Gingrich prompts look at local food-stamp usage

By Dan Petrella/CU-CitizenAccess -- Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich has gotten a lot of mileage on the campaign trail by labeling Barack Obama "the food-stamp president."

He repeated that sentiment at Monday's debate in South Carolina, saying, "The fact is that more people have been put on food stamps by Barack Obama than any president in American history," which drew cheers from the audience. (Click here to see the former House speaker's complete exchange with Fox News moderator Juan Williams on the website Real Clear Politics.)

In light of these comments, we decided to take a look back at data on how enrollment in the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, has changed during the past few years.

Nationally, the number of people using SNAP benefits rose from 27 million in October 2007 to 44 million in February, according to the website PolitiFact.com. That's an increase of about 63 percent.

A sample of eight counties in East Central Illinois shows a similar trend. On average, the number of SNAP recipients in Champaign, Coles, Crawford, Douglas, Edgard, Iroquois, Moultrie and Vermillion counties increased by 18 percent from 2006 to 2011, according to data from U.S. Department of Agriculture.

In Champaign County, the number of SNAP recipients grew 24 percent during this time.

But, as PolitiFact and other organizations that have fact-checked Gingrich's statements point out, the increases -- both locally and nationally -- began before Obama took office and can at least partially be attributed to the lingering effects of one of the worst recessions in American history.

In addition, PolitiFact notes that the upward trend is in part a result of policies that began under the Bush Administration.

According to the website:

The number of food stamp beneficiaries had started to head upward under Bush, partly because of more aggressive efforts to get eligible Americans to apply for benefits, and partly because of changes in the rules that had the effect of broadening eligibility. The experts we spoke to agreed that both policies began under Bush but were retained by Obama.

Whatever the cause, many families in the region are struggling to put enough food on the table.

Click here to read a previous CU-CitizenAccess story about the growth of food insecurity in East Central Illinois, or click here to see Illinois Public Media's recent project Growing Hope Against Hunger.

Below is an interactive graph, created by CU-CitizenAccess reporter Pam Dempsey, showing increases in SNAP enrollment by county.

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