The federal food stamp program is under scrutiny again, this time for what appears to be an embarrassing matter of fraud on the East Coast. But in Idaho, state authorities report that there has been no evidence of similar types of problems.
A report in the New York Post earlier this week suggested that many food stamp recipients in that state are shipping food purchased through the federal program to friends and family members in foreign countries.
“Idaho follows federal regulations when taking action to prevent fraudulent activities in the food stamp program,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, spokesperson for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (DHW). DHW distributes food stamps in the state.
According to the report, food purchased in New York with the food stamp program’s Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards is frequently shipped to consumers outside the U.S. to countries including Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Haiti. The Post also reported that the practice has become so common that many food retailers in New York that accept the food stamp EBT cards as food reimbursement have also begun selling large shipping containers to accommodate the market demands of the food stamp shoppers.
“We haven’t received any reports nor do we have any evidence of this kind of fraudulent activity in Idaho,” Forbing-Orr commented.
The food stamp program was started to provide financial assistance for low income people for the purchase of food products. Created by Congress and President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, the benefit program is funded with federal tax dollars and is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The benefits are then distributed by individual state governments, with both state and federal tax dollars used to fund the administration and distribution of the benefits.
Idaho’s food stamp program fell under criticism back in 2011 when it was discovered that the state had spent approximately $1.5 million of Idaho taxpayer money distributing food stamp benefits that were reimbursed at grocery retail outlets outside of the state. Of that, nearly $500,000 was reimbursed in parts of the country beyond the border states of Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
“Since all the benefits are provided by the federal government, they have always been portable,” explained Jan Hanke, public records coordinator at DHW to IdahoReporter.com in December of 2012 when the matter first came to light.
Earlier this year, state Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, raised concerns about the food stamp program during the legislative session, noting her preference that food stamps should be used for nutritious food choices, and not for “junk food.” She stated that, in her view, there is a correlation between the purchase and consumption of unhealthy junk foods and the rising costs of Medicaid services in Idaho.
While debating a bill to spread out food stamp distribution during the course of the month, instead of the current arrangement of the benefit being distributed all on the first day of each month, Lodge stated that “We need a committee that is willing to keep emotions out of this, and find ways to help people stretch their food dollars. The food stamp program is supposed to be supplemental nutrition, and we need to get people to stop buying cookies, energy drinks, soft drinks and such. We need to encourage them to buy potatoes instead of a bag of potato chips.”
Forbing-Orr told IdahoReporter.com that “many states, including Idaho, have questioned the federal government about limiting foods purchased through SNAP (food stamp program) to healthy choices, but have been unsuccessful.” She says that there is little that the state of Idaho can do about how food stamp resources are spent.
However, on the matter of fraud within the food stamps program of New York, she noted that Idaho is prepared to take action if a similar problem arose here. “If we were to become aware of anything like that happening in our state, we would pursue penalties available to us under federal and state rules,” she stated.
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