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Fitial opposes switch to Federal SNAP program

By Emmanuel T. Erediano SAIPAN, CNMI (Marianas Variety, Jan. 13, 2012) - Congressman Gregorio Kilili Camacho Sablan once again asked Gov. Benigno R. Fitial to stop blocking better food assistance that the federal government can provide the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands (CNMI) poor families.

In his letter yesterday, Sablan updated Fitial about the progress of the lawmakers’ effort to include the CNMI in the national Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

"I continue to ask that you join me in this effort," Sablan told the governor.

Currently, because the CNMI receives nutrition assistance from the federal government under a block grant the islands receive only about half of what Guam gets per person.

The Fitial administration said joining SNAP involves administrative costs that the CNMI government cannot afford.

In an email, Press Secretary Angel A. Demapan said the governor had yet to review Sablan’s letter.

But he explained that under the current NAP program, the administrative cost is fully funded by the federal government.

Sablan informed Fitial that President Obama signed U.S. Public Law 112-55 which provides the CNMI an increase of US$1 million for its food stamp program bringing it to a total of US$13.1 million.

The additional fund, Sablan said, must be for benefits and cannot be used for administration.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack made the commitment to increase the funding in response to Sablan’s request.

The U.S. Congress confirmed that commitment by including the increased funding in U.S. P.L. 112-55.

"My goal however, is to lift benefits even higher by including the CNMI in the national SNAP," Sablan told Fitial. "As you know, people in the Northern Marianas receive only about half the federal food assistance that people on Guam receive because we are not included in SNAP, as Guam is."

Sablan said the CNMI would have to bear half of the administrative cost of SNAP.

But he noted that it costs the government of Guam only US$37 per individual annually to run a US$96 million food stamp program.

It costs the CNMI government right now US$120 per year per individual for a US$13.1 million program, he added.

"So it could be much cheaper to run it under the [national] food program," he said.

Based on an economic analysis he commissioned a few months ago, Sablan said the US$12 million to US$24 million additional federal food assistance to the CNMI will generate additional revenue that ranges from US$2.5 million to US$5 million. This, he added, is more than the US$600,000 administrative cost that the Fitial administration says it cannot afford.

But Demapan said comparing the CNMI to Guam "should not be the sole basis of projecting costs because it has to be considered that the NMI would have to operate the program on all three municipalities."

He said a "thorough dialogue between local and federal counterparts would be the best avenue to address the commonwealth’s concerns in an effort to reach an agreement that will be mutually favorable."

US$4.87 diet Sablan at the same time said his US$4.87 food stamp challenge brought him much closer to the people.

Now that he experienced it himself he understands how tough it is to live within the current food stamp system, if he were among its recipients.

He’s lucky that he just had to do it for five days because "it’s tough."

He knows that there are many people in the program who have someone in the family working but whose income is still not enough.

Sablan said under the SNAP, the daily food budget of food stamp beneficiaries here will increase from US$4.87 to US$7.25 or higher.

Sablan ate mostly "soba," Spam and cabbage during his five-day food stamp diet.

"I am sure many people are eating soba under the current food stamp program," he said.

"I want them to know that they are not alone. Now that I have done this, my thoughts and support and prayers go to them and I shall continue to work hard to try to bring the federal food program into the Northern Marianas," he added.

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