The maximum food stamp benefit for an individual in the Northern Marianas is $4.87 per day. To call attention to how difficult it is buy food with that amount, Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan will spend just that much on food for each of five days, beginning Sunday, Jan. 8. Sablan hopes that his action will convince the CNMI government to work with him to get the U.S. Department of Agriculture to include the Northern Marianas in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Because of the economic distress we have faced in recent years, there are now thousands of struggling families in the Northern Marianas who receive food stamps,” Sablan said. “People have lost their jobs. Their work hours are cut. Their gas and CUC bills are going up. Food stamps are the only way some families can put food on the table. So, for the next week I am going to live on a budget of $4.87 for food each day. $4.87 is the maximum benefit a person on food stamps gets. And that's what I'm going to live on, too.”
Sablan asked a registered dietitian on Saipan to develop a menu that remains within the dollar limit but at the same time provides nutritious meals. He noted that “It's important for people to understand that even on this very tight budget, it is possible to eat healthfully.”
Sablan has been working to increase food stamp funding since he first came to Congress in 2009. He was able to get a 13-percent increase for the CNMI food stamp grant in line with the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. That money was locked in with later annual appropriations.
This year Sablan got another $1 million increase from the Secretary of Agriculture.
“We have a $13.148 million line item in the fiscal 2012 appropriation that Congress just passed,” Sablan said. “So we're up about $3 million from when I was first elected to Congress. But it's not good enough.”
Sablan has introduced the AYUDA Act, H.R. 1411, to include the Northern Marianas in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program, and at his request the Senate Appropriations Committee this year instructed the Department of Agriculture to begin planning to integrate the Commonwealth into the national system.
“Average food stamp benefits in Guam, for example, are more than twice as much as in the Northern Marianas, the CNMI's could be, too,” said Sablan. “Our local government continues to deny our community a level of benefits available throughout the rest of the United States.”
Local officials have resisted the idea, however, saying it would be too expensive and difficult to administer.
“The national program would bring anywhere from $12 million to $24 million additional dollars to the CNMI economy, according to the Congressional Budget Office,” Sablan said.
A study Sablan commissioned estimated that this additional food stamp money would mean $2.2 to $5 million in new tax revenue each year for the cash-strapped CNMI government.
“Right now the food stamp program costs about $1.2 million to administer,” Sablan explained. “Under the national program the CNMI would have to cover half the administrative costs-which the new tax revenues would more than take care of. That additional money in the economy would be good for businesses and create jobs, too. It's not going to be easy. But life is not easy for a lot of the people I work for either.”
Sablan also noted that the U.S. Department of Agriculture recently announced the rollout of a new website that can be of help to individuals struggling to prepare nutritious meals on limited budgets. He praised the USDA's “SuperTracker” website, which allows individuals to compile personalized nutrition and physical activity plans. To access the USDA website, visit www.sablan.house.gov and click on the USDA's “SuperTracker” link.