July 22, 2011
On Thursday, July 21, the House Subcommittee on Nutrition and Horticulture held an audit hearing to examine the Farm Bill’s Nutrition Programs, programs that accounts for over 75 percent of the Agriculture Committee’s budget. USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) administers nutrition programs, which include Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program (FMNP), The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TFAP), Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP), and several others.
FNS Administrator Audrey Rowe answered two hours of questions from Subcommittee Chairwoman Jean Schmidt (R-OH), Ranking Member Joe Baca (R-CA), and Reps. Chellie Pingree (D-ME), Steve King (R-IA), Steve Southerland (R-FL), and Gregorio Sablan (D-Mariana Islands), as well as full Committee Chair and Ranking Member Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Collin Peterson (D-MN).
Rep. Baca focused his questions on the link between nutrition and health, particularly child health, anti-obesity measures, and food distribution on reservations. Answering his questions about the availability of healthy foods for SNAP and WIC participants, Ms. Rowe said participants’ ability to use this program at farmers’ markets leads to greater consumption of fruits and vegetables.
Rep. Pingree started by noting that 250,000 Maine residents rely on SNAP to help them feed their families. There can be “a convergence of the interests of nutrition and farmers” through farmers’ markets, providing healthy food access and increased income for farmers. She asked Ms. Rowe how FNS could make it easier for retailers to apply for EBT machines.
Ms. Rowe affirmed that FNS had been working on the issue, telling the subcommittee that “I became interested in nutrition because of my involvement in my church’s farmers’ market on the South Side of Chicago.”
Rep. Pingree discussed with Ms. Rowe the number of schools that would like to participate in the fresh fruit and vegetable program but are denied due to insufficient program funds.
Rep. Schmidt targeted her statement and questions at the size of the program and the potential for “waste, fraud, and abuse.” She asked Ms. Rowe about how FNS recovers overpayments, as well as the investigation and prosecution of fraud. She also urged Ms. Rowe to reconsider the FNS position to limit children’s consumption of starchy potato products, touting their nutritional benefits and the ways they can be prepared healthily.
Noting that he was on food assistance himself at one time, Rep. Baca told the hearing “these programs are putting food on the table for my neighbors.” After his colleagues repeatedly questioned Ms. Rowe regarding potential waste and fraud in the program, he reminded the hearing that SNAP has a one percent rate of error due to fraud, and “there’s more than one percent waste in contracts, like government defense contracts.”
Rep. King aggressively questioned Ms. Rowe about the purpose of food assistance programs, pressing her on the prevalence of child malnutrition and dismissing the link between food scarcity and obesity.
Rep. McGovern responded to this line of questioning by discussing with Ms. Rowe the administrative streamlining obtained by using categorical eligibility. He also reminded his colleagues of the importance of FNS programs. Though the budget is tight, “I don’t think all programs are equal…there’s not a community in America that’s hunger-free. We’re spending a lot right now [on SNAP] because people are in poverty!”
Ms Rowe agreed, saying “People need to be able to not only put food on their table, but healthy food on their table.”
Rep. Sablian of the Mariana Islands spoke passionately about the poor economic situation in his district and the high cost of food in the remote areas of the Pacific Islands. Ms. Rowe assured him that she would work with him to improve the food access of his constituents.
Rep. Lucas delivered an opening statement regarding FNS programs in the context of the upcoming farm bill and budget situation. “Farm Bill Programs will not be spared the chopping block in the face of budget cuts,” he said.
Rep. Peterson also joined from the full committee, asking Ms. Rowe about changes in nutrition standards, categorical eligibility, and illegal trafficking of benefits.