USDA Official Commits to Help, After Kilili’s Plea for More Food Stamp Assistance for CNMI


Washington D.C. – Responding to Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan’s impassioned call to help the hungry in the Northern Mariana Islands, a top food stamp official at the Department of Agriculture committed her agency to improve the nutritionassistance program in the Marianas at a congressional hearing Thursday in Washington D.C.

Congressman Sablan laid out his case for putting the Northern Mariana Islands into the national food stamp program at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture.

Sablan argued that thepeople he represents in the Northern Mariana Islands are being denied access to food assistance because a “food stamps lite” program, negotiated by the U.S. Agriculture Department and the Commonwealth Government is inadequate and inflexible. Even people who do receive help, he said, get much less than other Americans, yet face much higher food costs.

Sablan is a member of the Agriculture Committee’s Nutrition Subcommittee, which has oversight over the Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program. SNAP provides food aid to some 44.6 million Americans, but the Northern Marianas does not participate in the program.

The sole witness for today’s hearing was Ms. Audrey Rowe, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service at the Agriculture Department.

“Do I have your commitment to help the Northern Mariana Islands,” Sablan asked her in front of a packed Agriculture Committee hearing room.

“You have my commitment,” Rowe told Sablan.

Sablan’s emotional description of how his constituents must struggle to feed their families riveted the attention of his colleagues on the Subcommittee and listeners in the audience.

“You may not have a vote,” Republican Chairwoman Jean Schmidt of Ohio told Sablan in front of the gathering. “But your people have a voice.”

Members of Congress representing non-state areas do not have a vote in the House chamber, but do vote on legislation in Committee and vote on leadership positions within the Democratic and Republican Party caucuses.

READ Congressman Sablan’s full statement to the Committee below:

Thank you Chairwoman Schmidt, Ranking Member Baca, and members of the subcommittee.

Literally thousands of my constituents are going hungry and they need our help.  The Department of Agriculture runs a “food stamp” program in the Northern Mariana Islands. I call it “food stamps lite,” because recipients only get half the help that Americans who qualify for the national Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) receive. The average single-person household benefit is just $111 per month in the Marianas, while right next door in Guam the same household gets $208 per month because Guam is in SNAP.

Not only do my constituents get less help feeding their families, but the food they buy ismore expensive. On the island of Rota, for instance, frozen whole chicken costs over $4.00 per pound. If you go down to the Safeway on Maine Avenue here inD.C., you can buy fresh whole chicken for $0.99 per pound. How do we expectpeople in Rota and other places in the Northern Marianas to get by when they face that kind of cost differential?

It gets worse. In May benefits had to be cut by 24% in the Marianas, because more and more people are becoming eligible for help; and the fixed, block grant we get from USDA had to be divvied up into smaller and smaller benefits. In fact, poverty is growing so quickly that the local government finally had to stop adding people to the food stamp program, rather than continue to dilute the benefits for those already enrolled. 500 people are eligible, need help getting food for their families, and are “wait-listed.”

Those 500 people will remain wait-listed and more people will be added to the wait-list, until either this Congress acts or the Secretary of Agriculture uses his authority to get food to people who need it.

What can we do in Congress?

I have introduced H.R.1465, the AYUDA Act, which would put the Northern Mariana Islands into the same national Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program that helps hungry American families throughout our country. AYUDA means “assuring you uniform dietary assistance;” and that is exactly what the bill would do: assure Americans in the Northern Marianas the same dietary assistance that Americans in California, or Georgia, or Guam get. All we are asking is fairness.

H.R. 1465 has receivedgreat support from my colleagues, including Ranking Member Baca. Maybe we can roll it into the farm bill, when we get that important legislation out of the Agriculture Committee and on to the floor of the House.

In the meantime, however, my people are hungry. It is probably no exaggeration to say that some people in the Marianas are starving, not getting the minimum level of nutrition necessary for healthy life. I don’t want to wait for Congress to act.

So, I have appealed toAgriculture Secretary Vilsack. The Secretary has broad authority to extend to the Northern Mariana Islands any and all federal nutritional assistance programs, including SNAP. I am including with this statement the Congressional Research Service report confirming that the Secretary has this complete authority provided under terms of Public Law 96-597.

Up until now, the Agriculture Department has negotiated a block grant with the Northern Marianas Governor each year to pay for a food stamp program in the islands. Maybe this system worked at the beginning to make sure people who needed food assistance got enough help. But lately these negotiations have resulted in what I called earlier “food stamps lite,” an inadequate substitute for the aid other Americans get to ward off hunger.

I have been working with Secretary Vilsack, since I came to Congress in 2009 to try to shore up the block grant program and make it serve my constituents more equitably. And Secretary Vilsack and his team have been receptive and helpful.

In April of 2009, responding to my request, the Secretary on his own authority increased the block grant by 13.6% to match the increase in SNAP aid that was included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And Agriculture maintained that increase in subsequent fiscal year budgets. That helped.

Agriculture has, also at my request, encouraged the local government to incorporate features of the SNAP program into the local program, such as the standard utility allowance, and is guiding the local government to upgrade its accounting and tracking systemswith new computer hardware and software. That’s a help.

Most recently, I’ve appealed to the Secretary to take cognizance of the 24% cut in benefits and the 500 people wait-listed and to reprogram funds for this fiscal year to do something to help hungry families. I have not gotten a flat “no” from the Secretary on this request, so I remain hopeful that he will take immediate action in the face of the deteriorating economic situation in the Northern Marianas.

But, ultimately, what I want the Secretary to do – and formally requested him to do in June – is to use his statutory authority under Public Law 96-597 to incorporate the NorthernMariana Islands into the national Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.

I recognize that the Governor of the Northern Marianas would have to agree to this change. Because it would require that the local government shoulder some of the administrative costs of the program; and right now the administrative costs come right off the top of the block grant without any local contribution.

So, even if Secretary Vilsack agrees, people in the Northern Marianas might still continue to go hungry, unless the Governor sits down with his advisors and realizes that a small local contribution in administrative costs would yield a large benefit to thousands of hungry people in the islands. I hope the Governor understands the good sense behind this trade-off.

I hope, too, that the Secretary offers the Governor the opportunity to make this decision. It would certainly be consistent with the Administration’s stated policy. Undersecretary Kevin Concannon made clear the inherent problem with block grants, such as Agriculture and the Northern Marianas negotiate each year, in a recent interview with the Hagstrom Report. In his experience, Undersecretary Concannon said, block grants cannot respond to changes in need that occur with rising unemployment and economic downturn. This is precisely what is happening now in the Northern Marianas: economic downturn has led to rising unemployment and underemployment, making more people eligible for food aid, while the amount of funding available remains unchanged — hence, the 24% cut in benefits for some and the complete denial of benefits for those wait-listed.

Undersecretary Concannon also expressed concern that federal regulations on civil rights dictate that the SNAP program be run in the same way nationwide. I certainly concur thatwhat I am seeking with H.R. 1465, the AYUDA Act, and what I am asking Secretary Vilsack to do by including the Northern Marianas in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program is a simple matter of equity. All Americans should have the same access to food aid when they are hungry.

I urge this Committee and the Department of Agriculture to work with me to put the Northern Mariana Islands under the national SNAP. People are hungry. We cannot wait another day.

Thank you again, Chairwoman Schmidt, for holding this very important hearing and for giving me an opportunity to make this statement on behalf of my constituents.