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Thursday, April 24, 2014

$32.5M for NMI’s pilot food stamp program

President Barack Obama signed Friday (Saturday, CNMI time) a nearly $1 trillion agricultural spending bill containing a $32.5-million pilot food stamp program for the CNMI, even as the new law cuts national food stamps by $8 billion over the next decade that sparked a two-year battle in Congress over the legislation.

U.S. Public Law 113-79, signed by Obama in Michigan, sets aside $2 million for the U.S. Department of Agriculture to study whether the CNMI can administer the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP.

Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) said that beginning October 2015, $30.5 million will be available to raise benefits for families in need in the CNMI—whether or not the islands are part of SNAP.

Sablan said he is grateful to everyone in Congress who helped him reach the “important milestone in my effort to fight hunger in the Northern Marianas.”

“Getting families in the Northern Mariana Islands the same level of food assistance as other Americans has been my goal since I got to Congress. The signing of Public Law 113-79…is a huge step toward that goal,” Sablan told Saipan Tribune yesterday.

The delegate has been pointing out that he does not want food stamps to be a way of life in the CNMI, but only as a safety net for people until they can help themselves by getting jobs.

“The law also allows using some of the funds for career work training for program beneficiaries so they can transition from food stamps to jobs,” said Sablan, who became a member of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee in 2011.

‘Leftover funds’

In the meantime, while the CNMI awaits the results of the study, there is a way to increase food stamp benefits, Sablan said.

He said as he understands it, the CNMI presently has at least $2 million of food stamp grant money “left over from prior years that could be used to increase benefits, and $12 million for this year.”

“I certainly hope the governor will use as much of that $14 million as soon as possible to increase benefits now—especially for Rota and Tinian,” the delegate added.

Press secretary Angel Demapan, when sought for comment, said the administration welcomes the enactment of the finally agreed upon farm bill.

He said with the inclusion of funding for the SNAP study, “this is an opportunity for the Commonwealth to have a true gauge on the feasibility of SNAP in the CNMI.”

From paper stamp to card

Sablan said the most visible change will be the electronic benefit, or EBT, system. Instead of paper food stamps, people will have plastic debit cards that they can swipe when they buy food. The system is expected to help the CNMI reduce the reselling of paper stamps and other kinds of fraud that give the program a bad name.

“This will be less costly to administer and it can also reduce the misuse of the benefit,” the delegate added.

Sablan said he would like to get the SNAP study “as soon as possible.” He is already scheduling a meeting with Audrey Rowe, who heads Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, and with the department’s technical staff, who will be in charge of the study.

“There are a number of things I want the study to consider: most importantly, I want to be sure that we do something about getting higher benefits for Rota and Tinian, where food costs are higher. The guiding principle is to make sure that all Americans have the same level of support. That doesn’t mean everyone gets the same dollar value of support. It means everyone should be able to obtain the same amount of food. So where costs are higher, benefits need to be higher,” he said.

Sen. Paul Manglona (Ind-Rota) separately said yesterday that the newly signed U.S. law will be a big help “to people in the CNMI who are in dire need of assistance.” Manglona has long-supported efforts to put the CNMI in the national food stamp program.

“We congratulate Congressman Kilili for successfully inserting a special provision in the national farm bill for the CNMI. I continue to ask our food stamp office to provide an adjustment for Rota and Tinian because the prices of commodities there are much higher than those on Saipan. A study has been completed confirming this but we haven’t seen any adjustments yet,” Manglona told Saipan Tribune.

Sablan said he also would like to see Agriculture employ local talent in the study.

“Of course, the department will be working with Community and Cultural Affairs, which runs the food stamp program now and will keep running it, I assume. But if there are surveys or data collection needed, maybe we can involve [Northern Marianas College] students in some way. I’d like to see students earn some money while they are in school. We’ll see,” he added.

Local produce

The delegate said he also wants to encourage USDA to look at the local produce issue.

The new farm law has another pilot program that would double the value of food stamps for people who use them at farmers markets, buying locally produced foods.

“That would be great to put into practice in the NMI. It would mean more sales for farmers and more food for families. It may also help with local produce sales at the Garapan Farmers Market presently under renovation using money I earmarked in 2009. Talk about win-win,” he said.

The agriculture spending law will spread benefits to farmers in every region of the United States. It expands federal crop insurance but ends the government’s direct payments that go to farmers whether they produce anything or not.

The CNMI currently 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 CNMI. When the number of beneficiaries increases, federal funding also goes up.

For example, a family of four in the CNMI gets $444 a month. But a family of four in Guam gets $931.

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