Only Obama’s signature needed for $32.M NMI SNAP pilot

Feb 5, 2014

WASHINGTON, D.C. (Office of the CNMI Congressional Delegate) — Only President Obama’s signature is now needed in order to begin a $32.5 million pilot program aimed at giving the Northern Mariana Islands the full benefit of the national food stamp system, SNAP.

The U.S. Senate passed a farm and food policy bill that includes the 5-year pilot for the islands. The Agricultural Act of 2014, H.R. 2642, gathered a bipartisan majority of 44 Democrats, 22 Republicans, and 2 Independents. The measure could be signed by the president as early as Tuesday evening or Wednesday in the CNMI.

U.S. Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan, who became a member of the House Agriculture Committee in 2011 and has worked for the last three years to get his constituents into SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, said, “We are part of the American family, so our families deserve the same help putting food on the table that other Americans receive.

“Getting into SNAP means equal treatment for the people of the Northern Marianas. Whether it is food aid or education funding or any of the policies we work on in Congress, our goal is always to be treated as Americans.”

Currently, the Northern Marianas 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 Northern Marianas. And when the number of beneficiaries increases, federal funding rises, too.

“A family of four in the NMI gets $444 a month,” explained Sablan. “A family of four in Guam gets $931. That’s not fair. But this new $32.5 million we added to the farm bill will raise benefits here in the Northern Marianas and fix the unfairness.”

The bill sets up a five-year pilot program for the Northern Marianas that begins with a $2 million feasibility study in 2014 and 2015 and then raises benefits in the following three years. Even if the study shows that SNAP will not work in the islands, the commonwealth’s existing block grant program will still receive $30.5 million for benefits in addition to its current funding.

Sablan has been working to get more food for poor families since he was first elected to Congress in 2009. At the time the food stamp block grant was $10.187 million per year. This year Congress appropriated $12.148 million for the Northern Marianas program.

When the bill becomes law, it will make another $13.5 million available for benefits beginning in October 2015. Then there is an additional $8.5 million in 2016 and again in 2017.

Ultimately, Sablan’s goal is to have the Northern Marianas fully incorporated in SNAP, so that as economic conditions vary, the amount of federal funding can change, too.

“Looking ahead, just when our 5-year pilot program is nearing its end in 2017, it will be time for Congress to reauthorize farm and food policy again,” Sablan said. “That will be the perfect legislative opportunity to finish the job of giving the people of the Northern Marianas equal participation in SNAP as part of the American family.”

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