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UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Statement of Roberto Salazar, Administrator
Food and Nutrition Service
Before the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development,
Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies

March 20, 2003

Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and members of the Subcommittee for allowing me this opportunity to present the budget request for the Food and Nutrition Service for fiscal year 2004.

The mission of the Food and Nutrition Service is to increase food security and reduce hunger together with cooperating organizations by providing children and low-income people access to food and nutrition education in a manner that inspires public confidence and supports American agriculture. We are requesting a total of $44.2 billion to fulfill this mission through the Federal nutrition assistance programs.

As the Under Secretary noted, the request for FNCS focuses on the accomplishment of three critical outcomes: 

  • To address the emerging epidemic of obesity, especially among America’s youth, by improving our programs’ ability to support healthy eating and physical activity, including better integration of nutrition education into Federal nutrition assistance.
     
  • To improve access to these programs, to ensure that all those eligible are able to participate. 
     
  • To enhance performance and integrity in the programs, to strengthen their operation and maximize their ability to serve eligible children and low-income people while safeguarding the taxpayer’s investment in nutrition assistance.

I’d like to offer you some details from our request that provide the link between the investments we intend to make and these important goals.

Combating Obesity

The budget request includes funding to promote healthy eating and physical activity to prevent nutrition related illnesses in America. These are core objectives of the nutrition assistance programs, as they represent a unique opportunity to reach populations that experience a disproportionate share of diet-related problems and risk factors including overweight and obesity.

FNS is working on a number of fronts to harness the power of the nutrition assistance programs to combat obesity, such as: 

  • As part of the President’s HealthierUS initiative, we are pursuing a vigorous nutrition promotion campaign, “Eat Smart. Play Hard.” The campaign is designed to motivate healthy eating and more physical activity;
     
  • We are working to improve the nutritional content of school meals, food packages and other benefits to ensure that they continue to contribute to a healthful diet; 
     
  • We are expanding and improving program-based nutrition education, such as Team Nutrition, and other nutrition services to improve healthy eating skills of participants; 
     
  • We have made significant improvements in the nutritional quality of school meals, lowering the percentage of calories from fat and saturated fat as well as reducing levels of sodium and cholesterol; and
     
  • We are enhancing our support of breastfeeding, a proven strategy to reduce the early incidence of obesity, through peer counseling and exploring other ways in which WIC can assist in the battle against childhood obesity.

In addition, FNS and the Center on Nutrition Policy and Promotion are working in partnership with other USDA agencies, the National Cancer Institute and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to increase the consumption of fruits and vegetables to 5 to 9 servings per day for a healthier eating pattern. 

Ensuring Program Access

The budget request includes funding to support initiatives to ensure access for low-income individuals who are eligible to participate in our programs. While the Food Stamp Program reaches tens of millions of low-income Americans every month, many others who are eligible for benefits, including many seniors and the working poor, do not participate. To better reach these eligible nonparticipants, we have launched a major new public information campaign, “Food Stamps Make America Stronger”, awarded grants to 33 local and state organizations over the last two years to assist the working poor, elderly, legal immigrants, and other low-income families and individuals, and are prepared to award another $5 million in grants this year to help States improve the food stamp application process as authorized by the Farm Bill. 

To meet our commitment to improve access for all who are eligible, we must work closely with our program partners – individuals and organizations in communities across America who deliver the nutrition assistance programs, and work to make them accessible and effective. Faith-based organizations have long played an important role in raising community awareness about program services, assisting individuals who apply for benefits, and delivering benefits. President Bush has made working with the faith-based community an Administration priority, and we intend to continue efforts to reach out to that community in FY 2004.

Strengthening Integrity and Program Management

We are requesting additional funding in the President’s budget to strengthen integrity and program management both at the Federal and State levels. In the Food Stamp Program, FNS administers a quality control system that encourages payment accuracy by establishing fiscal liabilities and incentives based on State performance in benefit determinations. In fiscal year 2001, the rate of overissuance was 6.47 percent ($1 billion) and the rate of underissuance was 2.19 percent ($340 million) for a combined payment error rate of 8.66 percent, the lowest in the history of the program. We expect performance to have improved in fiscal year 2002. But continued vigilance will be needed to sustain and to continue to improve on this record. One factor as we continue our commitment to performance is that food stamp caseloads in virtually every State are rising, while at the same time many States face significant budget deficits.

Another focus of our integrity efforts is improving the accuracy of certifications for free and reduced price school meals. As you know, FNS has been analyzing this problem for a number of years; while we do not have a measure of its full extent, the indications are clear that the problem is real, and may have worsened in recent years.

Inaccurate certifications represent a risk that free and reduced price meals could be provided to ineligible participants. Furthermore, certifications are used to distribute billions in Federal, State, and local education aid; errors can undermine targeting of aid to those most in need.

USDA has been working for a number of years to collect additional information to learn more about the problem, and to identify potential solutions. Current efforts include pilot-tests of alternative free and reduced-price eligibility determination systems, administrative reviews of the current verification process in a number of school districts, and a study to assess the eligibility status of families selected for income verification. 

The President’s Budget proposes to improve the accuracy of eligibility decisions and to reinvest any savings from improved payment accuracy in ways that strengthen the program, ensure the access of all eligible children and improve the nutritional quality of meals. We have had a continuing dialogue with the Congress, the school food service community and program advocates trying to find a solution to this problem that does not deter eligible children from participation in the program and does not impose undue burdens on local program administrations. This will be an issue in the upcoming reauthorization of the Child Nutrition Programs. In the meantime, we will soon be issuing a final regulation that will require local agencies to report certification verification results to State agencies. The States, in turn, will use this information and meal data to target technical assistance activities to school food authorities with the highest levels of verification errors.

FNS is addressing Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) management weaknesses identified by Federal and State reviews and in OIG audits. A regulatory proposal published in September 2000, proposed changes to State and local monitoring and training requirements. An interim rule that implemented statutory changes to the CACFP was published in June 2002, and training on the rule was provided to State and Federal CACFP staff during the fall of 2002. A second interim rule will be published during the summer of 2003 to implement the remaining provisions.

Now, I would like to review some of the components of our request that relate to these outcomes under each program area.

Food Stamp Program

We are requesting $27.7 billion for the Food Stamp Program, including a $2 billion benefit reserve as appropriated in fiscal year 2003. This proposed reserve would be available for eligible households in case participation exceeds current estimates. Participation is estimated to increase by 871,000 to a level of 21.6 million participants in fiscal year 2004. This level of funding will also support approximately 200,000 new recipients covered under the 2002 Farm Bill changes to eligibility requirements for legal immigrants and other individuals.

Child Nutrition Programs

For these programs, we are requesting a total of $11.4 billion. The budget request will support the daily participation of over 29 million children in the School Lunch Program and over 9 million children a day in the School Breakfast Program. The cost of snacks served under the after school National School Lunch Program is also included in this request. We estimated 41 million meals above the fiscal year 2003 estimate in the Child and Adult Care Food Program. The request also includes additional funding to support increases in school enrollment, increases in payment rates to cover inflation, a higher proportion of meals served to children in the free and reduced price categories and to support efforts to improve integrity.

Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC)

The President’s request of $4.8 billion will enable us to provide benefits to a monthly average of 7.8 million needy women, infants and children during fiscal year 2004. This is a record-level request that shows the Administration’s commitment to this effective and critical program for mothers and their young children. We believe this funding will provide benefits and services to all who are eligible and wish to participate. In October of 2002, WIC participation reached a record high of over 7.66 million participants. Since then, participation has fallen, consistent with historical trends toward lower participation in the winter months than during the rest of the year. We expect program demand to grow throughout the spring and summer. This request supports a $150 million contingency fund to allow WIC to serve all eligible persons seeking benefits should funding be insufficient for any reason.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

We are requesting $140 million, as provided for in the Farm Bill, to purchase commodities for this program. Our funding of States and local agencies costs associated with the distribution of commodities is a vitally important part of our support of the TEFAP community and we are requesting $50 million for this purpose. As Under Secretary Bost has noted in his testimony, Secretary Veneman has committed the Department to a continuing flow of surplus commodities to TEFAP at levels comparable to recent years. These surplus commodities are an essential resource to the food banks and significantly enhance their ability to serve the needy in their communities. 

Nutrition Programs Administration

Our Nutrition Programs Administration (NPA) request for fiscal year 2004 is $144.8 million, an increase of approximately $8 million over the fiscal year 2003 enacted level. We are requesting approximately $2.9 million for pay cost increases and $1 million to fund 13 additional staff years to enhance program integrity in the Child Nutrition programs. The request also includes an increase of $4.0 million to enable us to expand our initiatives to combat obesity, reduce diet-related disease among all Americans, and support the President’s HealthierUS intiative. The Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, also included in this budget request, will continue the process of updating the Food Guide Pyramid, one of the Nation’s most important nutrition education tools; update the Interactive Healthy Eating Index; work jointly with the Department of Health and Human Services on the updated Dietary Guidelines for Americans; and begin development of an obesity prevention campaign. As noted by Under Secretary Bost, FNS will be expanding its very effective Eat Smart. Play Hard. campaign to WIC, Food Stamps and possibly other nutrition assistance programs. The agency will also initiate development of family-oriented, nutrition education messages that are useful and relevant across the full range of our programs.

Thank you for the opportunity to present this written 


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