Vilsack Says Delay Not Possible for Food-Stamp Cuts

Photograph by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A Richmond Emergency Food Bank volunteer packs boxes with food on Nov. 1, 2013 in California.

A request by lawmakers to delay reductions in food-stamp benefits that Congress approved in a new farm bill can’t be met because of how the law was written, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

“What we’re faced with it is that Congress has been very specific,” Vilsack said today at a briefing for U.S. Department of Agriculture staff and farm and food advocates at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

He added: “Our folks are going to be implementing the law as it was written,” — which means the required reductions must begin taking effect within 30 days of its enactment. President Barack Obama signed the law on Feb. 7.

Congress cut spending for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance program by about $860 million a year, about 1.1 percent of its projected spending in 2015, under the  farm bill passed in February. The reduction came from ending extra funds states could receive by enrolling food-stamp recipients in home heating aid programs, thus qualifying them for an average of $90 extra a month in return for as little as $1 a year in assistance.

Critics called the so-called “heat-and-eat” programs a loophole that was being abused to raise food-stamp payments.

The farm bill raised the assistance threshold to $20 a year. Of the roughly 15 states and the District of Columbia that had heat-and-eat programs, New York, Pennsylvania and Connecticut have announced they will spend extra money to raise the threshold.

Last week, 16 senators and 81 members of the House wrote the Agriculture Department asking for a delay until late this year in implementing the cuts, saying, “Our states need time to adjust their policies to accommodate this drastic cut and roll out the changes seamlessly.”

Vilsack’s comments today couldn’t be what they were hoping to hear.

Federal spending on food stamps — formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — has more than doubled in the past five years, with the bulk of the money spent at retailers including Supervalu Inc. and Kroger Co. The program cost a record $79.9 billion in the 2013 fiscal year, almost one-eighth of the roughly $650 billion a year Americans spend on groceries.

About 47 million Americans used food stamps in November, the most recent month for which data is available, the Agriculture Department said Feb. 7. Almost half of all food-stamp redemptions occur in big-box supercenters such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc., while most of the rest are in chains such as Safeway Inc., according to data collected by Bloomberg.


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