WASHINGTON, D.C.-Food and Nutrition Services Administrator Audrey Rowe, along with members of her senior management team, welcomed Gov. Benigno R. Fitial to the FNS Headquarters in Alexandria yesterday afternoon.
In their meeting, Fitial and Rowe exchanged views and insights on the operation and challenges of the current nutrition assistance program in the CNMI.
The governor emphasized strongly that the local government is currently not in a position to undertake the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP. Instead, he brought to FNS’ attention concerns about unemployed nonresidents, and about particular populations of illegal overstayers who give birth in the CNMI so that their children are U.S. citizens. In turn, the unemployed and out-of-status parent avails of food stamp benefits in the name of the newborn citizen child. While the governor believes that children should have access to nutrition, he is gravely concerned about increased reports of abuse of benefits, or what is known as “benefit trafficking,” by unemployed nonresident parents who are believed to be trading their child’s food stamp vouchers for cash or for products not allowed under the program’s guidelines. Fitial pointed out that this underground economy is harming not just the integrity of the program, but also legitimate businesses and beneficiaries who follow the rules.
To combat this illegal practice, Fitial asked FNS to implement more stringent measures that would ensure that illegal nonresident parents are not given access to the vouchers that are supposed to be for the nutrition needs of their children.
Fitial also directed Rowe’s attention to the agency’s de-obligation of $4.5 million in earmarked funds for the establishment of the electronic benefit transfer system in the CNMI. Unlike other states and territories, food stamps are still issued as physical voucher coupons in the CNMI.
The governor expressed disappointment that such funding would not be available, especially since he strongly believes that the EBT system would play a major role in curbing the widespread abuse of food stamp benefits. He asked Rowe to revisit the MOU in place and to explore options to restore the funds.
In regards to the issue of SNAP, Rowe indicated that she had informed CNMI Delegate Gregorio Kilili Sablan that the agency still needs to see “a lot more data” to determine viability of implementing SNAP in the CNMI. She also informed the delegate that FNS still needs to review the current structure of the nutrition program in the CNMI and the MOU that is in place for the CNMI. Fitial was surprised to hear these remarks from Ms. Rowe, primarily because Sablan has made no mention of Rowe’s concerns in his campaign to have the CNMI switch over to SNAP.
Fitial thanked Rowe and her team for inviting him to their office and expressed his commitment to working closely with FNS to ensure that stringent measures are in place that will not compromise the integrity of the program.
In reference to SNAP, Fitial told the FNS officials, “I support increased benefits for our residents, but I will never commit the local government to a program that carries requirements that we will not be able to satisfy.”
The governor pointed out that Sablan and other members of Congress should focus their efforts on improving economies and creating jobs for people instead of promoting dependency on welfare programs and creating more “welfare states.”
“I certainly would like to see a reduced dependency on food stamps and more willingness for residents to take on jobs,” said Fitial. “Working and earning wages doesn’t just improve a person’s spending power, it also has proven to be much healthier than just staying home and waiting for the monthly benefits.” (Office of the Governor)