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Costco will begin accepting food stamps


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POSTED: Thursday, October 29, 2009

Costco Wholesale Corp. said yesterday that it would start accepting food stamps from the 36 million Americans that use them at its warehouse clubs nationwide.

That is a reflection that food-stamp use has hit new heights.

The rolls of food-stamp recipients nationwide have grown by 10 million over the past two years. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said nearly 200,000 retailers nationwide now accept food stamps, 20 percent more than in 2005.

In Hawaii, food-stamp recipients grew in number by 23 percent in the year ending in June compared to the previous year and included more than 125,000 residents.

Until recently, some wholesale clubs were skeptical that poor people would be willing to pay the $50-a-year membership fee or would be interested in buying food in the bulk quantities for which the stores are famous.

But in this economy, stores see a potential market in the growing ranks of food-stamp recipients. (Memberships cannot be bought with food stamps.)

The company said it hopes to accept food stamps in about half its 407 U.S. stores by Thanksgiving.

At Waipio Costco yesterday, residents started calling to ask how they can use their food stamps, said General Manager Tom Burba.

“;It's a great thing,”; he said of the new policy.

Burba said Hawaii's seven Costcos will hold a conference call next week about processing Electronic Benefit Transfers, or EBTs.

“;When they flip the switch and when we're live, I don't know,”; he said. “;It's a lot of teaching we need to do”; so the employees can handle the various EBT transactions.

The Costco corporate office yesterday said the timeline for the transition in Hawaii depends on getting the software installed and obtaining a license from the state.

Luanne Murakami, with the state Department of Human Services, said using food stamps at Costco could help large families that buy in bulk. That's important as more working families have been coming in to applying for food stamps.

“;We're at an all-time high of applications on every island,”; said Murakami, administrator of the Oahu and neighbor island branches that issue benefits and support.

Her office has reorganized to handle the influx of new applicants, changing two offices that handle open cases into application processing units.

The previous four application units on Oahu have seen the number of new applicants increase to about 500 a month, a 66 percent increase from two years ago, Murakami said.

Polly Kauahi, director of development at the Hawaii Foodbank, said Costco's new policy could be important for middle-class people who are struggling to make ends meet. With layoffs and furloughs, the Foodbank has seen an increase in the need for help, including from some who previously were donors to the Foodbank, she said.

“;These people are already Costco members,”; she said. “;This economy is happening to not just the working middle poor, it's happening to the middle class right now.”;

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Star-Bulletin reporter Rob Shikina and the Associated Press contributed to this report.