Mistakes and plenty of questions about EBT cards

Mistakes and plenty of questions about EBT cards

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) — Businesses and taxpayers have lots of questions about the so-called EBT cards now used for public assistance benefits. Eyewitness News discovered a local company made a mistake about what can be purchased with the card, and viewers have raised concerns of their own.

One viewer was upset, seeing a sign that says "EBT cards gladly accepted" at the Factory 2-U clothing store on Niles in east Bakersfield. She wanted answers.

"I asked the clerk if they accept them for clothing, as well, and she said, 'Yes," the viewer described.

She didn't want to be identified. The viewer said she worries the benefits should be used for food.

"Back in the day, it was food stamps," the viewer said. "And you had to go in with a coupon book."

These days both food assistance and cash assistance are loaded on to the Electronic Benefit Transfer card, usually known as an EBT card.

"The EBT card has two purposes, it has the cash aid and it also has the Cal Fresh benefits on the card," Pam Holiwell explained. She's the assistant director at the Kern County Human Services Department. She adds, that's something a viewer might not understand.

Another Eyewitness News viewer raised concerns last Friday about Easter baskets sold at local FoodMaxx stores, and displayed with a sign saying "food stamp eligible."  It turns out, that was a mistake.

The baskets are advertised for $8.98, and include toys, candy and some Welch's Fruit Snack packages. The viewer questioned how that could really be food.

SaveMart Supermarkets is the parent company for FoodMaxx, and Eyewitness News asked for an explanation, and we got one emailed on Monday.

"After prompt review, we did find our FoodMaxx Easter baskets were mislabeled," their statement reads. "The stores have removed the signage." the message adds that the company follows Federal guidelines.  "An item like a gift basket would be eligible if the value of the consumable food product exceeds 50 percent of the purchase price," it continues.

SaveMart says their Easter baskets in past years met that requirement. "We appreciated the opportunity to review this product and correct the error," the statement concludes.

Again, that's a question of what EBT food benefits can be used for. Then, there's the "cash aid" portion.

From Human Services, Holiwell says there are currently about 58,000 food benefit cases in Kern County, and that serves about 140,000 recipients.

On the "cash aid" side, Holiwell says they now have about 20,000 cases. She said the cash benefits can be used to pay rent, utilities, transportation and things like diapers and cleaning supplies. And, that includes clothes.

At the Factory 2-U store, manager Linda Onufyrk says they get a lot of purchases with EBT cards. "We just slide (the EBT) card through, but only if they have cash, we don't accept Food Stamps," she said. "If they don't have cash on the card, it'll decline it."

Factory 2-U sells men's, women's and children's clothes and more. "We have home décor items, things that you'd put in the bathroom, rugs, everything," she said. Onufryk said all those items can be bought with EBT cash aid.

The viewer who questioned their sign said she's satisfied with the explanation. "Clothing and shoes are necessities as well," she said. "So, I think it's good that people can buy clothing as well with the EBT card."

As for making the most of the food benefits, Holiwell said Kern County Human Services got a grant to help teach clients how to make good purchases. "We're educating our Cal Fresh recipients about good nutrition and how to make your budget -- your food dollars -- stretch," she said.

Holiwell adds the two programs using EBT cards affect a lot of people in Kern County.

Between both food aid, with 58,000 cases and cash aid, with 20,000 cases the program provides assistance to a total of 250,000 recipients.  Holiwell says that's about 25 percent of Kern County's population.