Would you be willing to exchange $86.79 for $24?
A pair of men at the Shaw’s supermarket on Main Street did just that on a recent Tuesday morning as they engaged in a food stamp scam funded by U.S. taxpayers.
After purchasing a reported 20 24-packs of bottled water, on sale that week for $2.99 a case before taxes and redemption fees were added, the men went behind the store to the loading dock and poured the contents of each bottle on the ground. Shortly thereafter, a reporter also witnessed the pair wheel their shopping cart into the vestibule of the store, feed the 480 bottles into a redemption machine and claim their cash value at the customer service counter.
In a ploy a number of the store’s employees describe as common, these men had found a way to turn their funds from the federally administered Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, into cold, hard cash, which can then be used to purchase items that do not meet the program’s guidelines. By doing so, they have poured tax dollars down the drain. And while Congress has outlawed the practice, change has been slow to come as the penalties for those found in violation have yet to be determined.
Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP funds are distributed through the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Services division to low-income individuals and families to help them acquire the proper nutrition for a healthy lifestyle. Other aid efforts, such as the state-regulated General Assistance and federally controlled Women, Infants and Children programs, have enacted measures to curb this specific kind of fraud.
Effective Oct. 1, 2008, a provision of the Food and Nutrition Act specifically forbids the use of SNAP funds to obtain cash by intentionally discarding products for the container’s redemption value. However, the policy still has not been put into practice nearly two years later because the USDA still needs to set the penalties for violators, according to Adriana Zorrilla, a spokeswoman for Food and Nutrition Services.
“FNS is currently developing rulemaking that codifies this statutory provision and provides the program disqualification periods for these infractions,” Zorrilla said in an e-mail. “When something happens enough times, you have this sort of rulemaking.”
In 2009, the state of Maine was authorized to distribute nearly $316 million in SNAP funds with almost $12 million issued to Bangor residents alone. Ten states, including Maine, currently require a bottle deposit on recyclable containers ranging from 5 to 15 cents, a value that legally may be paid with SNAP funds.
One factor that may be slowing change at the federal level is the unease felt by those reporting the misuse of assistance funds. Barbara Van Burgel, director of the state’s Office of Integrated Access and Support, which oversees SNAP in Maine, said in order to disqualify someone from the SNAP program, her office must receive unambiguous evidence, not just anecdotal hearsay.
“A lot of people will talk in general, but are trepidacious about giving any specific information we can use” to investigate a reported misuse of funds, Van Burgel said.
Despite several anecdotal reports from employees at the Shaw’s store on Main Street citing the bottle-redemption scam as a recurring problem and federal legislation to address the abuse, officials at Shaw’s parent company, SuperValu Inc. in East Bridgewater, Mass., have not been told there is a significant problem.
“I did some checking and have not heard any specific examples of this being a consistent occurrence at our stores,” SuperValu spokesman Steve Sylven said in an e-mail.
Van Burgel was quick to point out that SNAP funds are not intended to entirely fund a recipient’s food budget. She said SNAP participants received an average of only $129 a month last year, a boost financially but far from an adequate nutrition budget.
The federal SNAP program may be slow to implement its own policies, but at the local level here in Maine, change has been swift. At the Office of Health and Community Services in Bangor, the staff at the state-regulated General Assistance program got wind of the bottle deposit loophole and effectively closed it with a simple solution: Those using General Assistance funds must pay cash for all bottle deposits. Without the need for approval from the state government, the Bangor office was able to implement this change at the local level almost immediately.
Admittedly, the General Assistance program is much different from SNAP. Mandated by the state, General Assistance funds are distributed through local offices and are designed to provide not only money for food but also for housing, fuel and other necessities. By requiring those seeking assistance to apply in their local municipality, the office can regulate its funds more strictly than the federal program can.
“It’s conceivable that we pay for food, fuel, housing, diapers. It’s quite a range for General Assistance,” said Shawn Yardley, director of the Bangor office of Health and Community Services.
Yardley said his staff approached him about the bottle deposit scam after hearing from community members and grocery store employees who identified it as a recurring problem. Their outrage — coupled with anecdotal evidence, which would not be strong enough to implement changes to the federal program — spurred rapid change for the city of Bangor.
“This is a very important safety net program,” Yardley said. “I don’t think anyone would think this is reasonable for someone to obtain cash.”
The changes to General Assistance guidelines are a direct copy of a longstanding policy at Women, Infants and Children, a federally administered program that provides nutrition assistance to mothers with children up to age 5. WIC funds may be used only for a limited number of items, with juice being the only acceptable purchase that could require a deposit.
“The stores have been instructed not to allow WIC customers to use funds for deposits,” said Laura Honeycutt, the WIC program manager for Bangor.
In order to accomplish that aim, Honeycutt said the WIC state office employs a two-person team that visits all eligible vendors. The General Assistance program has taken this idea one step further, printing the policy directly on the vouchers.
For now, the SNAP program remains without the teeth to enforce the changes mandated by Congress. Zorrilla was unable to provide a timeline for when the necessary rules will take effect so that state offices can begin holding assistance fund abusers accountable. While it may take some time to determine the penalties, Van Bur-gel urges anyone who wishes to report the misuse or waste of federal SNAP funds to call the national fraud hot line at 800-424-9121.