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Costco will take food stamps after Gioia’s prodding

After a successful pilot program in Astoria and Brooklyn, Costco Wholesale announced last week that it would begin accepting food stamps at all locations nationwide, making one Queens elected official very happy.

“This is a big victory for the millions of Americans who use food stamps, and Costco deserves a lot of credit for helping food stamp recipients in tough economic times,” said City Councilman Eric Gioia (D-Sunnyside), who discovered the company did not accept food stamps when he was living on them as part of a poverty awareness campaign in 2007. “By accepting food stamps, Costco will allow millions of New Yorkers and Americans to eat healthier for less.”

Gioia said he was told the wholesale giant might provide a way for him to stretch his food budget. When he instead discovered Costco did not accept food stamps at all, he started to pressure CEO James Sinegal to change the company’s food stamp policy.

When Costco announced the pilot program in May, Sinegal said in the past the company was not convinced the demand was sufficient to warrant a food stamp program.

“However, we are mindful that many of our fellow citizens are facing unprecedented economic challenges at this time, and it seemed to us that it was worth reconsidering our position in that light,” he said in a statement. Costco expects half of its 410 stores to accept food stamps by Thanksgiving.

In New York City, from January 2008 to August 2009, food stamp enrollment increased by 354,000, or about 30 percent, the largest jump since the 1970s, city Comptroller William Thompson’s office said.

As of June 2009, more than 35 million Americans received food stamp benefits, a 23 percent increase from September 2008, Thompson’s office said.

Thompson can claim some credit for the program, too. As chief executive officer of New York City Pension Funds, which collectively hold 1.5 million shares in the publicly traded company, he sent Sinegal a letter requesting food stamp acceptance.

“Costco’s corporate reputation will improve as they join with their competitors in accepting food stamps,” Thompson said. “This is a win-win for all involved.”

The Queens and Brooklyn Costco locations were selected as pilots for the test because of the high concentration of food stamp recipients in the surrounding areas, Sinegal said.

Reach reporter Jeremy Walsh by e-mail at jewalsh@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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