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UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE
Food and Nutrition Service

Statement of Eric M. Bost, Under Secretary
Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services
Before the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development,
and Related Agencies

May 22, 2003

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

With your permission I would also like to introduce three members of the FNCS team accompanying me today. Suzanne Biermann, the Deputy Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, Roberto Salazar, Administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service, and Dr. Eric Hentges, the Executive Director of the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion.

The Presidentís Budget for fiscal year 2004 requests $44.2 billion in new budget authority, reflecting the Administrationís commitment to the nutrition safety net that protects the Nationís children and low-income households from hunger and malnutrition and motivates them to make smart food choices and engage in physical activity to promote their health and well-being. The purposes to which we will put this substantial commitment are clearly defined and tightly focused on the achievement of three critical outcomes. First, we intend to do our part to address both within nutrition assistance programs and, through the Center on Nutrition and Policy Promotion, in the general population, the growing public health threat of obesity. Secondly, we seek not just to maintain, but to improve the access of eligible persons to our programs. Finally, we will continue our pursuit of improved performance and program integrity.

Combating Obesity

The choices that consumers make related to their diet and physical activity have a major impact on their health. Poor diets and sedentary lifestyles cost this Nation dearly in medical costs, in lost productivity, and most sadly, in the premature deaths of over 300,000 citizens annually. We are committed to do our part, within the larger framework of President Bushís HealthierUS initiative, to combat this epidemic. Nutrition assistance programs play a critical role in fostering good health and preventing diet-related health problems by ensuring access to nutritious food to those who need it, and by promoting better diets and physical activity through nutrition education to program participants.

This budget request reflects this priority. We have requested $25 million for peer counseling to enhance our breastfeeding promotion efforts in the WIC Program and demonstration projects to evaluate how WIC can be used to combat obesity among our children. We are also seeking to expand our very successful Eat Smart. Play Hard. campaign to other FNS programs beginning with WIC and Food Stamps. Finally, we are seeking resources to develop an integrated, family-oriented approach to nutrition education that cuts across all our programs. These activities allow the Department to partner with other federal agencies as we work across Departments to meet the Presidentís challenges for a HealthierUS.

The need to improve diets to fight overweight and obesity extends to the general public as well. Our request also supports USDAís Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion, which works with the Department of Health and Human Services and other agencies to promote good nutrition to all Americans. Within this budget request are resources to update and promote the Food Guide Pyramid, one of the foremost nutrition education tools in the Nation, to develop the next revision of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and to support obesity prevention efforts for the general public as part of the Presidentís HealthierUS initiative.

Ensuring Program Access

Ensuring access to the nutrition assistance programs is a top priority of this Administration. Our commitment is to ensure that every eligible person has access to the benefits they need. The Department Ďs new Strategic Plan includes strategies to improve access to a number of underutilized programs and to pursue education and outreach efforts to make eligible people aware of nutrition assistance. At the most basic level, we have consistently designed the budget to ensure that the Programs are adequately funded to meet the demand for services. This includes proposing record funding levels over the past two years for the WIC Program and reinforcing that funding with a contingency fund. A similar reserve in the Food Stamp Program prevented any disruption in the flow of benefits to 19.8 million food stamp recipients last September when program needs exceeded the base appropriation. We are requesting the continuation of the Food Stamp reserve in fiscal year 2004.

As is clear in this budget request, we are committed to access as a key principle in our effort to improve the design and administration of the nutrition assistance programs.

Strengthening Integrity and Program Management

We are ever conscious of our responsibility to protect the American taxpayerís investment in the nutrition safety net. To maintain the publicís trust, we are committed to the sound stewardship of those resources. This budget funds efforts to improve program management and integrity both at the Federal level and by our State partners. Also included is funding to maintain our level of effort to reduce errors in the Food Stamp Program. Our payment accuracy rate for fiscal year 2001, the most recent year with data available, was 91.34 percent. This is the best payment accuracy rate that the Food Stamp Program has ever experienced. We will continue our efforts and work with State partners to reduce errors even further.

We are proposing targeted investment in new efforts to enhance program management and stewardship. For example, in the WIC Program, the Presidentís request provides $30 million to support the enhancement and modernization of the State-level information systems that have become so important to proper management of the Program. This kind of improvement is essential to strengthening program management, maintaining a high level of program integrity and, to the extent possible, preventing errors and other problems before they occur.

In the remainder of my remarks, I would like to highlight a few key components of our request.

Food Stamp Program

The Presidentís budget requests $27.7 billion for the Food Stamp Program, enough to serve an average of 21.6 million people each month. The request includes sufficient funds to support the changes enacted in last yearís Farm Bill including the restoration of eligibility to many legal immigrants. Included in this amount, we also propose to continue the $2 billion benefit reserve. The importance of this reserve is especially critical in fiscal year 2004. While we anticipate a return to strong economic growth, predicting the turning point of program participation is challenging. The proposed contingency reserve will ensure the availability of benefits for eligible households should participation or food costs exceed current estimates.

Child Nutrition Programs

The budget requests $11.4 billion for the Child Nutrition Programs, which provide millions of nutritious meals to children in schools and in child care settings every day. This level of funding will support an increase in daily School Lunch Program participation from the current 28 million children to over 29 million children. This funding request also supports an increase in daily School Breakfast Program participation from the current 8 million to over 9 million children. Requested increases in these programs also reflect rising school enrollment, increases in payment rates to cover inflation, and higher levels of meal service among children in the free and reduced price categories.

WIC

The Presidentís budget includes $4.8 billion for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the WIC Program. This yearís request will allow local communities to provide food, nutrition education, and a link to health care to a monthly average of 7.8 million needy women, infants and children during fiscal year 2004. The request provides for a contingency fund of $150 million. These resources can be used as needed if food costs or participation exceed current estimates.

Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP)

The budget requests $95.0 million for CSFP, which serves elderly people and women with infants and young children. The funds requested plus anticipated carry-over from fiscal year 2003, surplus donations and commodities currently in inventory will be sufficient to maintain this program in States that currently participate and those that join the program in fiscal year 2003.

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

As provided for in the Farm Bill, the budget requests $140 million for food in this important program. Our request for Statesí storage and distribution costs, a critical form of support for our Nationís food banks, is $50 million. Secretary Veneman has committed to ensuring the continuing flow of surplus commodities to TEFAP. Such donations significantly increase the amount of commodities that are available to the food bank community from Federal sources. 

Nutrition Programs Administration (NPA)

We are requesting $144.8 million in this account, which includes an increase of $8 million and 13 staff years in our administrative budget. This increase supports the child nutrition program integrity initiative described earlier, as well as a number of initiatives under the Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion designed to combat obesity and improve the dietary quality of all Americans. Our total request for federal administrative resources represents only about 0.5% of the program resources for which we have responsibility and sustains the program management and support activities of our roughly 1,700 employees nationwide. I believe that we need these modest increases in funding in order to maintain accountability for our $44 billion portfolio and to assist States to effectively manage the programs and provide access to all eligible people. 

Child Nutrition Act Reauthorization

As I stated in my testimony before this Committee last year, I personally feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to participate in the reauthorization of important programs such as the school breakfast and lunch programs, the WIC Program, and the summer feeding program. Congress and the Administration face a range of important challenges in this reauthorization cycle. Among these is combating obesity among our youth, ensuring access to our programs, improving the nutritional content of meals, and enhancing program integrity and administration.

Toward meeting these challenges, the Administration has established a set of principles to guide the reauthorization process. Key among these are:

  • Ensuring that all eligible children have access to program benefits Ė including streamlining the administration of programs to minimize burdens and increase meal reimbursements to provide support for quality program meals. 

  • Supporting healthy school environments Ė providing financial incentives to schools that promote good nutrition, including serving meals that meet the dietary guidelines, offer healthy-choice alternatives, and provide nutrition education.

  • Strengthening program integrity Ė the budget also makes clear that if there are any savings resulting from integrity initiatives these funds would be reinvested into the Program to ensure the best outcomes for those in need.

In sum, our request sets the right priorities to ensure access to the Federal nutrition assistance programs for the children and low-income people who need them, while maintaining and improving their integrity and supporting our efforts to address the growing public health threat of obesity. Thank you for your attention; I would be happy to answer any questions you may have.


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