A 34-year-old mother from As Lito said yesterday their household's food stamp benefits drastically dropped from $47 to $15 a month, a huge disappointment at a time when the prices of milk and other basic goods have gone up while work hours have been cut.
“I thought $20 a month was the lowest benefit which I saw from others, until we started receiving only $15 a month, just enough to buy chocolate milk packs for my child. I am hoping that they will at least bring back our benefit amount to $47 which is not a huge amount to begin with,” the mother told Saipan Tribune. She asked that her name be withheld for fear that their household benefits may be further cut or worse, cancelled.
Hers and other households have seen decreases in their food stamp benefits.
Yet unknown to many, the CNMI government reported to the federal government over $420,000 in “leftover” food stamp money in fiscal year 2012, which ended on Sept. 30.
The administration wants to use that “leftover” money to hire at least eight limited-term employees and renovate or expand DCCA's existing Nutrition Assistance Program office, based on a request sent to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
USDA funds the food stamp program and it is administered locally by the Department of Community and Cultural Affairs.
The NAP office has been expanded and renovated. A space previously occupied by a beauty parlor beside the NAP office is now part of the food stamp office.
“I wish they would use that money to give us a little more to buy more food,” the 34-year-old mother said.
Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP), in a separate statement yesterday, hopes the CNMI government would use the leftover fiscal year 2012 food stamp funds “to give a one-time bonus to those receiving the federal food aid.”
“I understand that there may be several hundred thousand dollars in unspent FY12 food stamp money. That money should have been paid out in benefits,” he said.
DCCA Secretary Melvin Faisao, in response to questions about the over $420,000 leftover food stamp money, said yesterday that he finds Sablan to be “very incoherent or totally confused.”
Faisao went to explain a report titled, “A Responsive Food Stamp Program in the CNMI” which he said was by James M. Pine.
Faisao said under Section II, under OMB CNMI Standards, “Pine recommended that food cost for household sizes other than paradigmatic (model) family of four be adjusted for the purpose of allotment of food stamps.”
“As noted, maximum benefit amounts are determined by adjusting the per capita Thrifty Food Plan amount for a four-person household in accordance with household size. In essence, Maximum Benefit for Household with fewer than four people will be moderately greater per member; while maximum benefit for Household with more than four persons will be slightly less per member.” he said.
The DCCA secretary went on to ask Sablan: “Why was this report not thoroughly analyzed by you when it was presented in the Halls of the U.S. Congress? My only suggestion is that it is a political ploy in disguise, in addition, Delegate Kilili is a failing leader!”
Faisao made no mention of the hundreds of thousands in leftover food stamp money that Sablan said could be used for benefits. The CNMI has some 10,000 food stamp beneficiaries.
“I certainly hope that the local government will now be giving that money to families who need food and not hiring more employees, buying new vehicles, or refurbishing offices,” Sablan said.
In May, the CNMI decided to cut benefits below the budgeted amount for fiscal year 2012. As a result, a significant amount of grant money remains unused.
The cut was some $10 below the budgeted amount, just months after USDA pointed out that the CNMI was paying more than the agreed amount.
Sablan said after the CNMI government had to return $4.5 million in unspent food stamp grants a year ago, the memorandum of understanding governing the grant was amended so that unspent funds would not have to be returned to the federal government.
The delegate also expressed anew his disappointment that the governor had signed a grant agreement with U.S. Department of Agriculture officials for fiscal year 2013 that is $1 million less than the 2012 grant.
“Given that Congress has appropriated $13 million for FY13, I hope the governor will reconsider his decision to accept just $12 million this year. Our hungry families need that extra money,” Sablan said.
Sablan is seeking re-election. The only other delegate candidate is Dr. Ignacia Demapan of the Republican Party, which Gov. Benigno R. Fitial heads. Sablan and Fitial do not see eye to eye on a host of local and federal issues.
In a statement, Sablan said the CNMI could see a $33- million food stamp increase, if Republican Majority Leader Eric Cantor brings the long-delayed “Farm Bill” to a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives during the post-election lame duck session of Congress.
Cantor, appearing at a Boise, Idaho campaign event for Republican Rep. Raul Labrador this week, made the commitment to get the Farm Bill onto the floor of the House for a vote after Nov. 6.
“Mr. Cantor's announcement is good news for the Northern Marianas. The $33 million, five-year pilot program that we included in the Farm Bill when it was approved in the Agriculture Committee will put the Northern Marianas on the road to getting the same food stamp benefits as other Americans,” Sablan said.
Currently, food stamp recipients in the CNMI receive less than half as much help as they would if they were living in Guam.
Guam is included in the national food stamp program, called SNAP. Average benefits there are $8.21 a day. The CNMI average is just $3.64 a day, Sablan said.