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Senate Committee Reviews Food Stamp Program

On January 31, the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee held a hearing on the reauthorization of the Department of Agriculture’s food stamp program. The current authorization of the program expires at the end of FY2007. The food stamp program is intended to help low-income individuals and families improve their diet by supplementing their income with benefits to purchase nutritious food, such as meat, dairy products, fruits, and vegetables.

Sigurd Nilsen, director of Education, Workforce, and Income Security Issues at the General Accounting Office, told the committee that the number of people receiving food stamps declined in the mid- to late-1990s, but began to rebound in 2000: “From 2000 to 2005, the program has grown from $15 billion in benefits provided to 17 million individuals to $29 billion in benefits to nearly 26 million individuals. Almost one in every 12 Americans participates in the program.” Dr. Nilsen discussed two major problems with food stamps: improper payments to food stamp recipients and trafficking in food stamp benefits. Although both problems have been reduced through government audits, he said that “ensuring program integrity remains a fundamental challenge.” Besides audits, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) “has taken advantage of electronic benefit transfer and other new technology to improve its ability to detect trafficking and disqualify retailers who traffic, while law enforcement agencies have investigated and referred for prosecution a decreasing number of traffickers, instead focusing their efforts on fewer high-impact investigations.” He said that FNS had made good progress in combating food stamp-related fraud.

Robert Greenstein, executive director of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, began his testimony with a historical overview of the food stamp program. Today, he said, the program “continues to provide a basic nutrition benefit to low-income families, the elderly, and people with disabilities who cannot afford an adequate diet. But today’s Food Stamp program is stronger than at any previous point in its history. By taking advantage of modern technology and business practices, the program has become substantially more efficient, more accurate, and more effective….In 2004, food stamps cut the number of children in extreme poverty (those living below half the poverty line) by 1.1 million, or 26 percent — more than any other program.” Despite the successes of the food stamp program, Mr. Greenstein indicated that food insecurity is still a looming issue for many American families; Census data from 2005 indicated that 35 million Americans were food insecure, meaning they “had difficulty providing enough food for all their members due to a lack of resources.” Mr. Greenstein recommended ways to make food stamps more accessible to families in need, including aligning or coordinating eligibility requirements with Medicaid or Temporary Aid to Needy Families eligibility, encouraging state flexibility in program administration, adjusting investment in the program based on inflation, and restoring benefits to some currently ineligible groups such as legal immigrant non-citizens.

Robert Dostis, executive director of the Vermont Campaign to End Hunger, testified regarding the needs of state government in combating hunger. Mr. Dostis, who also is a state legislator, said that “despite talk of a robust economy and low unemployment, hunger has been steadily increasing over the past decade in Vermont as evidenced by statistical trends, increases in food shelf caseloads, and stories from advocates on the frontline.” Between 2004 and 2005, Vermont experienced a significant rise in the number of children living in poverty from 11.7 to 15.4 percent. During times of economic stress, “parents do anything they can to ensure that their children are fed. Common coping strategies include parents and older children reducing their portions, skipping meals, borrowing food from family or neighbors, using credit cards, or purchasing cheap, nutritionally inadequate food that fill bellies but fail to provide nutrients,” Mr. Dostis said. He described the negative effects of child hunger, including malnutrition, developmental delays, behavioral and emotional problems, such as increased aggression, hyperactivity, anxiety and social withdrawal, and cognitive impairment. Mr. Dostis concluded his remarks: “As chair of Vermont’s House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, I can appreciate the pressures this committee faces in balancing resources for commodities, conservation, energy, and other titles of the Farm Bill. A strengthened Food Stamp program will have a far reaching effect…A strengthened Food Stamp program is a sound investment in our future and will help steer the course for the health and well-being of all Americans.”

Melinda Newport, a registered dietician and director of nutrition services for the Chickasaw Nation, shared the unique difficulties facing tribal governments: “Poverty disproportionately affects the Native American population, with some 25 percent living with an income at or below poverty level…With poverty being the principal factor causing food insecurity, the Native American community suffers from a much higher incidence of food insecurity and hunger than the general population….Nearly one in four Native American households is hungry or on the edge of hunger.” Besides disproportionate poverty, many tribal areas are geographically isolated; the isolation coupled with the expense of transportation leaves many families reliant on “less expensive, often high-fat foods, and few fruits and vegetables,” she said. Paradoxically, Native Americans have very high rates of obesity “as high as 80 percent and 67 percent for women and men, respectively, for example in Arizona.” Ms. Newport attributed the high rate of obesity to chronic food insecurity, including willingness to trade food quality for quantity, adaptive eating (eating more than normal when food is available), and physiological changes from poor nutrition. Ms. Newport recommended that tribal governments be given the same flexibility as state governments in administering the food stamp program, that the Women, Infants, Children (WIC) nutrition programs and Senior Farmers Market nutrition programs be expanded to reach more tribal areas, and that opportunities are provided for “nutrition professionals in the Native American nutrition programs to assist in developing culturally appropriate nutrition education materials.”

Rhonda Stewart, a single mother from Ohio, described her experiences with the food stamp program. She used the program after her ex-husband lost his job and child support payments became sporadic. Ms. Stewart was not able to purchase nutritious food for her son: “Unfortunately, the cheapest food I could afford to buy was not the healthiest food a growing child needs. I could buy a can of Spaghetti-O’s for less than a dollar, but a gallon of milk was almost $3.” Despite the food stamps, Ms. Stewart said she still struggles, and will sometimes skip meals so her son can eat. She asked the committee “to think about something for a moment is it in the best interest of my child for me to be skipping meals so he can have a full portion? What will happen to my son if I get sick or have other health problems?” She urged the committee to “make it a better program by increasing the amount of food stamp benefits people receive each month” so that they are able to purchase enough nutritious food. Ms. Stewart concluded, “This will allow us to eat every day and not go hungry when our limited benefits run out at the end of the month.”

Bill Bolling, founder and director of the Atlanta Community Food Bank; Frank Kubik, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program Manager at Focus: HOPE, a nonprofit organization in Detroit, Michigan; and Luanne Francis, Program Manager Health Care For All in New Orleans, Louisiana, also testified.

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