WASHINGTON, D.C.—More families in the CNMI will now be eligible for food aid through the Marianas Nutrition Assistance Program and their maximum benefit will increase 23% under a new memorandum of understanding negotiated with the Biden administration for fiscal year 2022, according to Delegate Gregorio Kilili C. Sablan (Ind-MP) yesterday. The benefit increase is retroactive to Oct. 1.
The changes, which move the Marianas toward parity with the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, SNAP, are possible because of the significant funding that Sablan has made available for Marianas NAP. The $30 million Sablan included in the American Rescue Plan will be released with the signing of the MOU.
“I want to thank Secretary Tom Vilsack, and especially his Deputy Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Stacey Dean, with whom I have been working for several years on improving food assistance to Marianas families,” Sablan said. “The new MOU they have agreed moves the income threshold for eligibility from 100% of the federal poverty level to 130%, as is used nationwide for SNAP.
“More Marianas families will now be eligible for food assistance,” Sablan said. It is estimated as many as 2,000 additional participants may be added to the program.
Benefits to increase
For a family of four on Saipan the new monthly benefit maximum will be $1,231, on Rota and the Northern Islands $1,498, and on Tinian $1,301.
Benefits in the Marianas will now be more than in the lower 48 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and will include the nationwide 23% increase that Vilsack announced for SNAP recipients earlier this year.
NAP benefits will be the same as SNAP benefits in Guam for fiscal year 2022. The Marianas benefits were first raised to the Guam level this year after Sablan included an additional $14 million for NAP in the Consolidated Appropriations Act for 2021.
“In addition, Rota, Tinian, and Northern Islands families will continue to receive their current differential over and above the 23% increase,” Sablan said. Benefits for Rota and the Northern Islands are 21.7% higher than the Saipan base amount; for Tinian the differential is 5.7%.
The Agriculture Department agreed to increase food stamps for Rota, Tinian, and the Northern Islands families in 2014. Sablan made the case to then-Food and Nutrition Services administrator Audrey Rowe that the higher benefits were needed to make up for the higher cost of food on those islands. Later that year he included $30.5 million for Marianas NAP in the Agricultural Act of 2014, allowing higher benefits for families on Saipan too.
Rainy-day fund will protect families
“A priority for me was to make sure no one is thrown out of the program or has their benefits cut, as Gov. [Ralph DLG] Torres did to families last October, right in the middle of the pandemic,” Sablan said. “That was totally unnecessary because in Congress we added an extra $14 million for Marianas NAP in the FY2021 appropriation and $30 million more in the American Rescue Plan. To be sure families will not be hurt like that again, the new MOU will set up a rainy-day fund for periods of increased and unexpected need.”
The Agriculture Department has assured Sablan there will be sufficient funds available to cover the increased number of eligible households, the benefit increases, and creation of the rainy-day fund. But Sablan also asked Biden to increase the annual block grant for food aid to the Marianas, which the President did—from $12 million to $30 million—in his fiscal 2022 budget released in May.
The House passed the FY 2022 appropriation with the $30-million grant for the Marianas in July, consistent with the President’s budget recommendation.
Step-by-step progress toward inclusion in SNAP
Sablan has worked with Dean for several years in the context of House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer’sTask Force on Poverty and Opportunity. Dean was a food advocate with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And Sablan has been meeting with her one-on-one since Biden appointed her to the Agriculture Department, advocating for moving the Marianas to inclusion in SNAP.
Sablan’s long-term goal remains full inclusion in SNAP for the Marianas. “The improvements in the [fiscal year] 2022 MOU are big steps in the right direction,” he said. “But there are income deductions, training opportunities, and other aspects of SNAP that I want families in the Marianas to be eligible for and will continue working with [Dean] to achieve.” (PR)