More than 7,300 people in McCracken County participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that serves as an "important health intervention" across Kentucky, states a recent report.

A 13-page report titled "SNAP Is Good for Kentuckians' Health," released in October by Berea-based Kentucky Center for Economic Policy, indicates 11.3% of McCracken Countians participated in SNAP as of September and spent $839,628 on groceries through the program.

Meanwhile, data from 2016 showed 15.7% of McCracken County was food insecure.

Food insecurity can refer to not having enough food to eat or not having the resources to eat preferable, more nutritious food, such as fresh fruits and vegetables.

Sometimes food is a necessity people cut back on when money is tight, explained Family Service Society executive director Candace Melloy. The Paducah nonprofit operates a food pantry as one of its services and the pantry assisted an average of 248 households per month in 2018.

"As a whole, in our food pantry, we're just continuing to see the numbers of folks being in need of food increase," she said. "A lot of the folks that come to us for food assistance are employed. They have jobs. They have their own places they're living (in) and that kind of stuff."

Melloy said a lot of its clients are trying to be self-sufficient, but their means aren't enough, so food tends to be where they compromise.

"They try to make sure their rent was paid and their utilities are paid, that they have gas in their car to get back and forth to work, but the one thing that they can skip on is food and that's why they come to us," she said.

At Community Kitchen, executive director Sally Michelson described the nonprofit as seeing higher, more unpredictable numbers. It typically starts off serving more than 200 per day earlier in the month, which builds to around 300 per day toward the end of a month.

"We are seeing those high numbers closer to 300, sometimes the second week of the month," she added. "So, it shows that they are having less money through SNAP, plus their needs are greater because they have less money also, and the cost of living -- of course -- has gone up for everyone."

Kentucky overall has the eighth-highest rate of food insecurity in the country, while more than 506,000 Kentuckians, including children, receive help with groceries through SNAP as of September. The level of food insecurity ranges from about 1 in 13 for Oldham County near Louisville to 1 in 4 in Magoffin County, located in eastern Kentucky, noted KCEP.

"Food insecurity -- it does show up in every single county in Kentucky, so it's not just a rural or an urban problem," Tamara Sandberg, executive director for Feeding Kentucky, said. "It's not a problem in just Appalachia. It's every county, but we do know that children and seniors are disproportionately impacted by hunger, so the rate of food insecurity among children is even worse than it is among adults."

The KCEP report shows research associates food insecurity with an array of health problems, such as higher rates of diabetes, chronic illnesses and hypertension, as well as poor mental health, sleep and oral health.

It states food insecure children are more likely to experience anemia, tooth decay, asthma, behavioral problems, anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation than peers who aren't food insecure, while seniors' health also can be affected.

"Research has shown that SNAP reduces food insecurity by anywhere between 16 and 30%," said Dustin Pugel, KCEP analyst and report author. "The result of that is that it ameliorates the health consequences associated with food insecurity."

Food insecurity-related health issues are also linked to increased health care costs.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates indicate food insecurity was associated with $1,834 in health care spending "per food insecure adult nationally" in 2016, while Kentucky spent $854.7 million on food insecurity-related health care costs that year, according to the KCEP report.

The total estimated health care cost in McCracken County was $11.8 million for 2016.

The KCEP report notes SNAP participants reportedly spend about 25% less on health care annually than similar adults who don't participate. They also self-reported better health and were less likely to stay home sick, visit the doctor or not get care because of its cost.

It can also benefit the economy.

Angela Cooper, state and education outreach director for Kentucky Voices for Health, a nonprofit and nonpartisan coalition, said every SNAP dollar that a household redeems can help expand the economy by as much as $1.70.

She stressed that SNAP benefits are 100% funded by the federal government.

"It's money that Kentucky taxpayers send to Washington and we need to get back as much of it as we possible can for Kentuckians," she added. "The census plays a really important role in that, so we're coming up on our decennial census in 2020. It's going to be April 1 and getting an accurate census count is incredibly important to how many SNAP dollars we get for the state, among many other federal programs."

The entire KCEP report by Pugel, featuring interactive maps, analysis and its SNAP policy recommendations, can be accessed online at kypolicy.org.

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