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Published June 27, 2011, 05:22 AM

Food stamp program hits efficiency record

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department says that the food stamp program has reached its highest level of efficiency in history, but also announced a proposed rule to stop beneficiaries from “water dumping” — buying beverages that require a container deposit and immediately dumping out the contents only to return the container and receive the deposit credit in cash.

By: Jerry Hagstrom, Special to Agweek

WASHINGTON — The Agriculture Department says that the food stamp program has reached its highest level of efficiency in history, but also announced a proposed rule to stop beneficiaries from “water dumping” — buying beverages that require a container deposit and immediately dumping out the contents only to return the container and receive the deposit credit in cash.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced recently that the food stamp program’s national average level of program payment accuracy for fiscal year 2010 is 96.19 percent, an all-time high.

The payment rate means that only 3.81 percent of payments to food stamp beneficiaries were either too high or too low.

Since passage of the 2008 farm bill, the formal name for food stamps has been the supplemental nutrition assistance program or SNAP. USDA administers the program in conjunction with state governments.

Program efficiency

In a news release, Vilsack both claimed credit for lowering the error rate and praised state governments for their efforts to maintain program integrity.

“The Obama administration has made it clear that we will track down and eliminate misspent tax dollars in every agency and department across the federal government,” Vilsack said in a June 16 news release. “USDA and our state agency partners have done just that in achieving historically high accuracy rates in SNAP, and we will continue to make improvements that protect taxpayer dollars while putting healthy food on the table for struggling individuals and families.”

The proposed rule would make the practice of “water dumping” a client violation that would be categorized as a trafficking offense and could result in a recipient’s disqualification.

“At a time when so many Americans are coping with economic hardship, we need to do everything possible to ensure that all SNAP benefits are used only as intended — to help struggling individuals and families put healthy food on the table,” said Kevin Concannon, undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services. “It is a top priority of this administration to maintain public confidence in SNAP and fight actions that can undermine the intent of the program. This rule gives USDA new tools to do just that.”

The Food and Nutrition Act provides for the disqualification of any person who has been found by a state or federal court or administrative agency to have intentionally abused their SNAP benefits. In the last 15 years, FNS has aggressively implemented a number of measures to reduce the prevalence of trafficking in SNAP from 4 percent down to its current level of 1 percent, USDA said.

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