PARKERSBURG - As the number of people receiving the benefits once known as food stamps decreases around the country, several counties in the region and West Virginia as a whole are going in the opposite direction.
A report by the nonprofit Food and Research Action Center says that in February, 362,133 West Virginians were receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (S.N.A.P.) aid, which helps low-income families purchase food through partnerships with state agencies, nutrition educators and community and faith-based organizations. That's up nearly 2.5 percent from January and 3.5 percent from February 2013.
West Virginia was one of just seven states in the country to see its S.N.A.P. numbers go up. The others were California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada and Pennsylvania.
Nationally, the number of people receiving S.N.A.P. benefits dropped to its lowest level since August 2011, about 46 million.
"The increase in caseloads is a statewide trend," said Dawn Hawkins, senior policy specialist for the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources' Division of Family Assistance. "Factors contributing to the increase include job loss, low wages and the ending of the unemployment extension.
"Also contributing is the increase in Medicaid recipients due to the Affordable Care Act," she said. "Citizens learn they could be eligible for S.N.A.P. when applying for Medicaid."
Percentage of county populations receiving S.N.A.P. benefits in April:
* Wood: 20.8
* Calhoun: 22.9
* Doddridge: 16.1
* Gilmer: 13.1
* Jackson: 20.3
* Pleasants: 13.3
* Ritchie: 18.4
* Roane: 26.2
* Tyler: 16.8
* Wetzel: 21.2
* Wirt: 25.1
The center's report does not break statistics down at county levels, but West Virginia DHHR data show Calhoun, Doddridge, Jackson, Roane, Wetzel and Wirt counties had more S.N.A.P. recipients in April than at the start of the current fiscal year in July 2013.
Wetzel had the highest overall increase, at 7.6 percent, while Roane and Wirt had the largest percentage of the population receiving benefits at 26.2 and 25.1 percent, respectively.
In Wood County, the benefit levels have been relatively stable, decreasing by a little over half a percent since the start of the fiscal year. But the numbers went up before declining again, and Lisa Heater, economic services supervisor with DHHR in Wood County, said the expansion of Medicaid is the most likely reason for many of the new recipients.
"That's the best thing we can attribute it to," she said.
As S.N.A.P. participation increases, use of food pantries and other services often follows.
Catholic Charities West Virginia's Parkersburg region provides food assistance to residents of Calhoun, Doddridge, Ritchie, Roane and Wirt counties. Regional director Deborah Shaffer said the agency served 132 family units, consisting of 322 individuals, in April, which is higher than the numbers it had been seeing.
"We see people of all ages and all reasons as to why they are coming to food pantries," Shaffer said.
She said the group she is most concerned about are senior citizens. If they do receive S.N.A.P. benefits, it's not usually very much.
"Some of them only (get) $12, $16 in S.N.A.P. benefits, if they receive anything at all," Shaffer said. "You can hardly buy milk, bread and margarine."
(The Associated Press contributed.)