FARM BEAT: Feds target fraud in food stamp program

jholland@modbee.comMay 17, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate textJohn Holland
    Title: Staff writer
    Coverage areas: Agriculture, Turlock; local news editor on Sundays
    Bio: John Holland has been a reporter at The Bee for 12 years. He has a journalism degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and previously worked at the Union Democrat in Sonora and the Visalia Times-Delta.
    Recent stories written by John
    E-mail: jholland@modbee.com

An undersecretary of agriculture talked this week about food stamp fraud, including a $1 million bust at an Empire store.

"That's a huge amount," Kevin Concannon said by phone from Washington, D.C. "That's a major trafficker."

His staff arranged the interview to highlight recent efforts to prevent fraud. It amounts to about 1 percent of a program that this year will provide about $68 billion worth of aid to 47 million low-income people. In California, the average household gets about $200 a month.

People can cheat the program by understating their income when applying for food stamps, which are now delivered via debit cards under the name Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Fraud also can involve selling the SNAP cards for cash, whether in a supermarket parking lot or on eBay or other Internet sites.

"We have zero tolerance in the program for trafficking or fraudulent enrollment," said Concannon, who is undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.

He had not known the details of the Empire case, reported in The Bee last week, until this reporter mentioned it.

A federal judge sentenced Mark Edward Powell, 63, to three years and one month in prison for abusing the program at his minimart, Santa Fe Discount, from 2009 to 2011. A news release said Powell had SNAP cardholders buy overpriced food products, then would give them the remaining dollar amount on the card in cash and keep a percentage for himself. Over 28 months, the fraud amounted to $1,001,000.

Concannon said the program has a staff of investigators looking for fraud, sometimes undercover, and has worked with eBay and other online services to stop abuses.

The transition from paper food stamps to debit cards, completed in 2004, has made it easier to monitor the system, he said.

SNAP is by far the biggest part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, outpacing farm income supports, food safety programs, conservation and other functions.

Congress is in the midst of adjusting SNAP spending as part of the twice-a-decade farm bill. Some lawmakers want to see cuts as part of the effort to wrestle down the national debt. Others say this would hurt people dealing with job losses or reduced income.

The number of SNAP recipients has more than doubled since 2007 because of the economic downturn, rising food prices and expanded eligibility under the 2009 economic stimulus law, the Associated Press reported.

Concannon said the recovery still has not reached many people, so the food aid "has never been as important as it is in the lives of Americans."

The undersecretary also oversees efforts to get people to eat better, especially fruits and vegetables. Guess what? You can use your SNAP card at many farmers markets.

Have an idea for the Farm Beat? Contact John Holland at jholland@modbee.com or (209) 578-2385.

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