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updated 5/19/2010 5:43:33 PM ET 2010-05-19T21:43:33

Attention food stamp recipients: Your business is appreciated.

The Agriculture Department announced Wednesday it will encourage grocery stores and other retail outlets that accept food stamps to post signs reading "We Welcome SNAP Benefits." The move is part of an effort to decrease the stigma of using government food assistance in a tough economy.

Attempts to reduce such stigmas have been ongoing for years. SNAP is an acronym for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, a recent name change designed to get away from the loaded phrase "food stamps." Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, is an electronic way of paying for items so it just appears that a customer is using a credit card.

The new signs are also meant to encourage a bit of economic stimulus. According to USDA, which oversees domestic food assistance, every $5 in new SNAP benefits generates as much as $9.20 in economic activity. Almost all benefits are redeemed within one month.

"Underscoring that SNAP benefits are welcome, rather than merely accepted, signals an important change in the way both retailers and program participants view these benefits," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.

Government food aid has grown in record levels over the last several years as the economic downturn has hurt families' bottom lines. Estimated spending on all domestic food assistance programs has increased more than 80 percent over the last three years, and the SNAP program served more than 6.6 million additional households between October 2006 and February 2010.

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, says his agency has seen some people — especially those who are recently unemployed — breaking down in tears as they registered for their benefits, never expecting they would have to receive government assistance.

He said the department is especially concerned those recently unemployed or underemployed may be "experiencing the difficult emotional feeling" of their job status and decline to use the benefits. He said USDA is also aware of Latinos worried about racial prejudice at retail outlets and the elderly who may more clearly remember the stigma of food stamps.

"A more definitive welcoming statement could be more reassuring to them," he said. "And it could help the store."

The Agriculture Department is also introducing an online tool to help recipients find stores that accept the benefits. More than 190,000 outlets participate in the program, a 27 percent increase in the last seven years.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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