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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Farm bill passage means more food for NMI families

WASHINGTON, D.C.—The U.S. House of Representatives passed a long-delayed farm and food policy bill yesterday, including $32.5 million aimed at bringing the full benefit of the national food stamp program, SNAP, to families in the Northern Marianas. The Senate is expected to approve the Federal Agriculture Reform and Risk Management Act, the FARRM bill, next week. And the President, too, is expected to support the bipartisan agreement. The vote in the House was 251 to 166.

“We are part of the American family, so our families deserve the same help putting food on the table that other Americans receive,” said Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP). “Getting the Northern Marianas into SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, means equal benefits for our people. And that is what the farm bill will help us accomplish.”

Currently, the Northern Marianas receives a block grant from the federal government for its local food stamp program. The block grant does not change, when the number of families getting benefits goes up. Each family just gets less assistance.

In nearby Guam, which is under the national program, benefits are double what they are in the Northern Marianas. And when the number of beneficiaries increases, federal funding rises, too.

“A family of four in the NMI gets $444 a month,” explained Sablan. “A family of four in Guam gets $931. That’s not fair. But this new $32.5 million we added to the farm bill will raise benefits here in the Northern Marianas and fix the unfairness.”

The bill sets up a five-year pilot program for the Northern Marianas that begins with a $2 million feasibility study in 2014 and 2015 and then raises benefits in the following three years. Even if the study shows that SNAP will not work in the islands, the Commonwealth’s existing block grant program will still receive $30.5 million for benefits in addition to its current funding.

Years of work pay off

Sablan has been working to get more food for poor families, since he was first elected to Congress in 2009. When SNAP benefits went up 13.6 percent in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act that year, Sablan convinced Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to increase the Northern Marianas block grant by the same 13.6 percent.

With benefits being cut in the Marianas as more people needed help, Sablan got Congress to add another $1 million to the annual funding in 2011 and kept that money there every year since.

“But even with those increases, our families were still getting less than other Americans,” Sablan recalls.

“So in the 112th Congress I became a member of the House Agriculture Committee. Over the next two years, as the farm bill was being drafted, I made the case at hearings and in private conversations with Chairman Frank Lucas and his Democratic counterpart Collin Peterson for adding the Northern Marianas to the national program.

“I will always be grateful to both of these leaders. They saw the need and added money for the Northern Marianas, even though the larger bill cut funding for SNAP nationwide by $8.6 billion.”

Local capacity

Sablan said that even with yesterday’s vote and expected enactment of the new law, there were more steps to take to bring the Northern Marianas into SNAP.

“We have given the Agriculture Department $2 million to begin immediately looking at how we can implement SNAP in the Marianas. In this initial study the department will be asking whether the Commonwealth has the administrative capability. I think we do.

“Is it feasible to set up the plastic credit card system the rest of the country uses to replace the paper food stamps we still have here in the Marianas? I think it is feasible. And the electronic benefit system, the EBT, will help us reduce the reselling of paper stamps and other kinds of fraud that can give the program a bad name.”

The Agriculture Department will also look closely at education and job training opportunities in the Northern Marianas.

“We don’t want food stamps to be a way of life,” Sablan said. “This is a safety net to help people until they can help themselves. We want to see more people saying goodbye to food stamps and other public assistance, because they have good-paying jobs and can feed themselves and their families on their own.”

Another consideration of the study will be whether the Commonwealth government is able to pay its half of SNAP’s administrative costs. Sablan commissioned a report by the former Commonwealth Secretary of Finance, Bob Schrack, in 2011 to answer this question.

“The Schrack report was very clear: increasing SNAP benefits coming into our economy will increase tax local revenues. So the program will pay for itself with revenue to spare.

“The increased economic activity will also create jobs in transportation, in stores, up and down the food supply lines,” Sablan said.

$30.5M for benefits

Once the study is complete and it is determined that it is feasible to launch SNAP in the Northern Marianas, the Agriculture Department will begin to work with the Commonwealth government to set up the program.

Benefits are expected to rise. There will be $13.5 million in new money available for benefits beginning in October 2015. Then there are an additional $8.5 million for benefits in 2016 and again in 2017—$30.5 million all together.

That money will be in addition to the food stamp grant the Commonwealth now receives, which was over $12.148 million in the fiscal 2014 appropriation act Congress passed earlier this month.

In the event the study determines that SNAP is not feasible in the Northern Marianas, all of the $30.5 million will still be available for benefits until it is completely expended.

“But the real goal,” Sablan repeated, “is to be fully incorporated into the national program. And just when our 5-year pilot program is nearing its end in 2017, it will be time for Congress to reauthorize farm and food policy again, the perfect legislative opportunity to finish the job of giving us equal participation in SNAP as part of the American family.” (PR)

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