of Lisa J. Pino
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
USDA, Food and Nutrition Service
House Committee on Agriculture
Subcommittee on Department Operations, Oversight,
Nutrition and Forestry
Good morning, Mr. Chairman. I am Lisa Pino, Deputy Administrator of the
U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS).
I am pleased to join you today to discuss the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program (SNAP) and how we can improve participation rates in SNAP
especially among difficult to reach groups and in California. Before I get into
those details, however, I want to step back and outline the U.S. Department of
Agriculture’s priorities for the Federal nutrition assistance programs managed
These programs are critical components of our Nation’s safety net for
families in need. They currently touch more than one out of five Americans each
year. Using their breadth and scope to promote healthier food choices among the
children and families they serve is a critical prevention component of our
national public health strategy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is
committed to making these programs as effective as possible in addressing our
top priorities – ending childhood hunger and addressing the obesity epidemic.
In support of these big picture outcomes, we are pursuing an ambitious agenda to
strengthen program access, modernize operations, improve the effectiveness of
nutrition education, and strengthen program integrity. We know that there are
great challenges ahead of us, but with the aid of our state and local partners,
we are determined to achieve these goals. We can achieve success in ending
childhood hunger and improving the nutritional status of participants.
This year Congress will reauthorize the Child Nutrition Programs. The
Administration is committed to supporting ground-breaking improvements in these
programs, including the school meals programs. In its Fiscal Year 2010 Budget,
the Administration proposed a billion dollars each year in new funding for Child
Nutrition, focused on priorities in reducing barriers and improving access; and
enhancing nutritional quality and the health of the school environment.
One important connection between SNAP and school meals is Direct
Certification. This system enables states to utilize data from the SNAP
certification process and directly enroll students in SNAP households for free
school meals, eliminating the need for application paperwork. This is an
excellent way to simplify the administrative costs while improving access to our
hunger-fighting programs. A recent report shows that while schools have
increased their use of direct certification, some direct certification systems
are more effective than others. We will be working to promote and expand best
practices in this area.
During this recession, SNAP proves its inherent value as the nutrition
safety net for America each and every day. More than 4 million people have
joined SNAP in the past 6 months. Nearly 38 million Americans receive SNAP
benefits, which is a 22 percent increase over just one year ago. In each month
of fiscal year 2008, SNAP served approximately 6.3 million households with
children, representing just over half (51 percent) of all SNAP households.
While record-high caseloads are an unfortunate indicator of the difficult
times and the daily struggles of families across our nation, they are also clear
evidence that SNAP is responding effectively, as it was designed to do, to the
economic downturn. SNAP participation increases when the need is greater and
contracts in better times. While SNAP has been responsive in these difficult
times, many eligible individuals remain unserved.
seriously its stewardship responsibilities for tax payer dollars through the
quality control system and support for payment accuracy initiatives. Even as
participation in SNAP continues to grow and benefits increase, FNS remains
committed to program integrity, and the results are clear: In fiscal year 2008,
SNAP achieved a record high payment accuracy rate. It is possible to
achieve both high participation and high payment accuracy simultaneously.
In the past year, California has experienced a twenty-five percent
increase in caseload from just one year ago, consistent with national trends.
Nearly three million (2,998,851) Californians received SNAP benefits in October
2009. The average California SNAP household received a monthly benefit of $325,
or $137 per person in fiscal year 2009. This is up from $259 per household and
$105 per people in fiscal year 2007.
Still, California has a low participation rate relative to many other
States. According to the USDA’s annual report on State SNAP participation
rates, California’s participation rate ranked 50 out of 51 including all the
States and the District of Columbia. In 2007, the most recent data available,
California served only 48 percent of those eligible to participate in the
program. The national average was 66 percent.
California’s low participation rate is a serious concern for many reasons.
First, plain and simple, the low participation rate means less healthy
food at home for households in need. It means that families lose the ability to
stretch their food budgets to purchase more and healthier food. It means they
go hungry instead of receiving nutrition benefits to which they are entitled.
Second, SNAP is an effective economic stimulus. Every $5 in new SNAP
benefits, if funded through emergency spending, has been estimated to generate
as much as $9.20 in total economic
activity.  If California were to increase its participation rate among those eligible for
benefits by just five percentage points, participants would have more than $117
million in benefits to spend on healthy food generating more than $200 million
in total economic activity. This is money “left on the table” that could flow
into the State’s economy and help the economy get back on its feet with an
influx of additional spending. Almost all (97%) SNAP benefits are spent for
food within 30 days.
Because SNAP is an effective economic stimulus, Congress and the
Administration worked together to build on the program’s strengths through the
American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The Recovery Act provided additional
benefits for SNAP recipients nationwide, $80 for a household of four per month,
starting in April 2009. These additional benefits have been very effective in
getting food resources to families facing increased need as a result of the slow
economy. In conjunction with the Mid-Session update to the President’s fiscal
year 2010 budget, we estimate that over time, the increased benefits will total
$48 billion. This figure will be re-estimated with the President’s fiscal year
2011 budget request and is likely to increase. The increased SNAP benefits were
some of the first Recovery Act dollars to reach the wallets of needy people and
the neighbors and businesses in their communities and made an immediate impact
on the national economic situation.
We recognize the extraordinary budget difficulties States, including
California, face in this current economic crisis. To help address the growing
strain on existing resources, the Recovery Act provided nearly $300 million in
new administrative funds to States – funds that will not require a match – to
help them serve the growing number of families seeking assistance. California’s
share of these funds is $21.7 million. The Defense Appropriations Act recently
provided another $400 million to States for this purpose.
USDA has offered all States an array of policy waivers to increase
participation in SNAP while reducing cost and administrative burden and helping
to more effectively manage the increasing workload.
California has already made some steps in the right direction. For
example, California has established broad-based categorical eligibility for
families with children. They are doing telephone interviews at certification
and recertification in some regions. There are online applications with
electronic signature capability in some regions as well as change processing
call centers in some regions. One important waiver that California is already
using restores eligibility to households terminated for failure to provide
reports if those reports are received within 30 days. These efforts represent a
significant start towards improving participation.
We are working with California to improve participation through three
methods –better policies, better practices and better outreach to those eligible
First, better policies. There are several policies that California can
implement to achieve significant savings and help to address its $20 billion
budget deficit, while also improving access and service for clients.
Specifically, we recommend the following approaches for California:
First, simplify client reporting. FNS has asked the State to
submit a plan by February 2010 to convert from the current quarterly
reporting system to a simplified reporting system. Simplified reporting
will require less frequent submission of report forms from clients, lead
to longer certification periods for some households, and reduce the time
and expense of acting on changes.
Second, expand eligibility and reduce workload through broad-based
categorical eligibility: Other States have eliminated asset requirements
and are making use of higher income limits (up to 200 percent of the
Federal poverty line) for all eligible households, not just those with
children under 18 as in California. Broad-based categorical eligibility
is an effective workload management tool for overburdened States workers
and simplifies the application process for clients.
Third, consistently offer telephone interviews in lieu of
face-to-face interviews. Many California counties have chosen not to
use telephone interviews consistently or limit the criteria for waiving
the face-to-face interview. Use of telephone interviews and tailoring
interview length and questions to the specific circumstance of the case
make the process more efficient and reduce as many burdens possible.
Failure to fully utilize these telephone interviews to their fullest
extent can make it more difficult for households to navigate the
certification process, thereby discouraging participation.
Fourth, eliminate finger imaging: While there is no hard data to
establish that finger imaging prevents participation of eligible
households, community-based groups have consistently reported that
low-income groups (especially low-income legal immigrants) are often
fearful of applying for SNAP because of the finger imaging requirement.
As States look for ways to provide services in difficult fiscal times,
the cost associated with finger imaging should be reconsidered. Most
States satisfy the requirement to establish a system to prevent
duplicate participation by matching names with social security numbers,
which is less costly than finger imaging and is also an effective
deterrent. We need to make every dollar count by managing resources in
the most efficient and effective manner possible. USDA is in the
process of evaluating how finger imaging systems may impact cost and
Fifth, expand call center change reporting and electronic
applications. While these approaches are being used in some regions,
participation and access could be enhanced if they were used statewide.
In the area of better practices, we stress the importance of customer
service and better business processes. The more user friendly the application
and related processes are, the more likely it is that access to the program will
improve. We will continue to work further with the State to see where the
application process can be improved or “reengineered” and whether there are
waivers or other assistance we can provide to help counties move towards more
efficient application processes. FNS encourages States to learn from each other
and implement models that work.
One critical customer service that must be addressed is application processing
timeliness. Timeliness standards are set by law. Applications must be
processed within 30 days or within seven days for expedited cases where
applicants have very low income. Despite current challenges, these standards
must be met. People have a critical need for timely assistance. Every day
matters when you’re hungry.
Some States have persistent difficulty with timeliness with little improvement.
California has experienced decreasing timeliness rates over the past two years.
In 2008, 79.6 percent of applications were processed in a timely manner in
California. The national average is 85.6 percent. Record caseloads are
challenging even those States with historically good timeliness rates. Yet
there are States successfully maintaining timeliness rates despite rising
caseloads. We encourage California to talk with such States and learn more
about their business practices.
error rate, which is the rate of incorrect denials, suspensions or termination
of benefits, is another critical customer service issue. California has a very
high negative error rate. When negative errors occur, access is hampered and
households face unnecessary hardship because households are removed from the
program unnecessarily. Over the past several months, FNS has done in-depth
reviews in the five largest States, including California, to learn why the
negative error rate is going up and what we can do to help States reverse the
trend. Results of this analysis are expected later this year.
Like all States, California must promote
accountability and make improved negative error performance as a priority.
Policy, Quality Control (QC), and Corrective Action staff must work closely
together on provided resources and tools to local county staff to promote
improved performance in this measure.
In the area of better outreach, the advantages are crystal-clear: due to
economic multiplier effect I described earlier, increasing the number of
eligible individuals participating in SNAP would bring additional federal
funding support to the State and its citizens. California is to be recognized
for its statewide outreach plan that includes partnerships with food banks. We
are working with many States, including California, to improve access and
participation through innovative outreach and community partnerships, especially
those designed to reach underserved populations, such as Latinos, the elderly,
and the unemployed and under-employed.
Nationwide, more than five million U.S. Latinos participated in SNAP in
2006, but nearly as many were eligible yet did not participate. SNAP served
nearly 1.1 million Latinos in California in an average month in 2006 (the latest
year with data on race and ethnicity). The participation rate of eligible
Latinos is just 56 percent nationwide, and in California is it just 43 percent.
This means California is losing millions in federally-funded SNAP benefits to
which their residents are entitled.
Latino families are much more likely to live in poverty and experience
food insecurity than white non-Latino households. More than one-quarter of all
people eligible for SNAP benefits but not receiving them are Latino. According
to USDA’s Economic Research Service, while fifteen percent of households in the
U.S. are food insecure in 2008, the rate of food insecurity among Latino
families was over 25 percent. This is not just a food security issue – it is a
question of equitable program access across USDA’s diverse customer base. The
Department is making a concerted effort to overcome barriers to program
participation in a wide range of programs among Latinos and other traditionally
under-served communities. We continue to seek ways to help all
States develop strategies that increase participation among such target
impeding Latino SNAP participation include confusion and misinformation about
the issue of whether someone is considered a “public charge”. In fact, receipt
of SNAP benefits does not make one a public charge. Other factors impeding
participation are the lack of awareness and understanding of the program and
eligibility requirements, and limited delivery of that information in cultural
and linguistically appropriate ways.
years, the Food and Nutrition Service has worked to eliminate these barriers and
reach out to underserved groups to raise awareness of the nutrition benefits of
SNAP, including significant efforts to reach the Latino population. Our efforts
Outreach to make sure that eligible clients, outreach providers, and
other stakeholders are aware of Department of Homeland Security policy
that clearly indicates that participation in SNAP does not make one a
advertisements in English and Spanish to promote the nutrition benefits
of SNAP and educate non-participating eligible people have aired in
multiple States for six years. We are in the planning stages for the
seventh year. Radio advertisements have aired in California during each
year to date.
web-based pre-screening tool in English and Spanish. Individuals using
the prescreening tool receive estimates of their eligibility and benefit
amounts. This tool is online at
national toll free number, 1-800-221-5689, provides information about
the program in Spanish or English and includes the option to receive a
packet of information by mail.
Educational posters and flyers in English and Spanish which may be
ordered for use in local outreach campaigns that can be used in
promotional and informational materials. These resources are available
comprehensive Latino strategy outreach plan, now under development, to
better reach and educate the Latino audience about the nutrition
benefits of SNAP.
national SNAP Outreach Coalition to bring together national and local
organizations working with low-income audiences. Coalition members
share effective outreach strategies to educate eligible,
non-participating, low-income Latino people about the benefits of SNAP.
Participation grants for projects that look at ways that State
partnerships can improve access, and make the application and intake
process more user-friendly. Three of these grants have been awarded to
organizations in California during the past seven years.
Outreach grants for small organizations to study the effectiveness of
strategies to inform eligible low-income people about the program.
Neighborhood and faith-based organizations in California have received
nine outreach grants since 2001.
Now, I would
like to turn my attention for a moment to the role that SNAP plays in promoting
healthy eating. Through the nutrition education component called SNAP-Ed, SNAP
plays a critical role in helping recipients obtain a healthy diet, engage in
physical activity and pursue healthy lifestyles within limited resources.
SNAP-Ed nutrition education resources in English and Spanish such as Loving
Your Family, Feeding Their Future can reach low-income mothers and motivate them
to improve their families’ eating and physical activity behaviors. While
SNAP-Ed can certainly be improved, it does play a key role in efforts to improve
participants’ food choices.
The Food Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 – the 2008 Farm Bill –
authorized $20 million for pilot projects to evaluate health and nutrition
promotion in SNAP to determine if incentives provided to SNAP recipients at the
point-of-sale increase the purchase of fruits, vegetables or other healthful
foods. FNS refers to this effort as the Healthy Incentives Pilot. Through this
recently launched pilot program, we released a competitive solicitation to
encourage State applicants to test innovative ideas to improve the nutritional
choices of SNAP participants. The Healthy Incentive Pilot is only one example
of the agency’s efforts to provide grants and other incentives in the programs
to advance nutrition.
number of farmers’ market authorized by SNAP is another priority. This effort
not only creates access to healthy produce for our clients but it expands the
customer base for local farmers. The number of farmers markets in SNAP
increased 25 percent in fiscal year 2009 over the prior year.
Farmer, Know Your Food is a new initiative launched by Secretary Vilsack and
Deputy Secretary Merrigan to enhance the link between consumers and local
producers. By successfully improving the link between consumers and local
producers there can be new income opportunities for farmers and wealth can be
generated that will stay in rural communities. There also can be a greater
focus on sustainable agricultural practices and families can better access
healthy, fresh, locally grown food.
In closing, let me reemphasize the Administration’s commitment to fighting
hunger and improving the Federal nutrition programs. I would like to thank the
Committee for the opportunity to join you here to raise awareness, focus
attention and motivate action to improve the effectiveness of SNAP and all
Federal nutrition programs, both here and across the nation. Working together,
we can strengthen our ability to ensure that, no matter what other hardships
they experience in the face of economic disruption, low-income people need not
experience food insecurity and hunger. I look forward to answering any
questions that you may have.
Increases in food stamp (now named SNAP)
benefits can stimulate additional economic activity. An increase in
benefits raises spending by recipient households, which then
stimulates production. Higher production boosts labor demand and
household income. Increased household income triggers additional
spending. Hanson and Golan (2002) estimate that an additional $500
in food stamp expenditures triggers an increase in total economic
activity of $920. See the Economic Research Service website at