By TIM HEARDEN

Capital Press

The USDA is cracking down on fraud in its nutrition-assistance program, and farmers’ markets could be among its targets.

Ag Under Secretary Kevin Concannon on Aug. 9 rolled out new tactics for fighting abuse of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which include tougher financial sanctions for retailers and new safeguards required of states in enrolling recipients.

Concannon said he wasn’t aware of instances of fraud at farmers’ markets that accept electronic-benefit transfer (EBT) cards. But he said the markets will be under the same scrutiny as retailers.

“We’ll be watching their redemption experience,” Concannon told the Capital Press during a conference call with reporters. “We have ways of watching and profiling locations.”

The government can carefully monitor transactions, tracking their frequency and redemption amounts, he said. “There are a lot of factors … that raise the flag for us,” he said.

The agency also has about 100 undercover workers in targeted areas around the country, he said.

Currently, about 5,000 locations around the country are “under watch,” principally small stores, Concannon said. Over a three-month period earlier this year, the USDA fined or suspended from the program more than 574 stores that violated rules and permanently disqualified 1,016 stores for trafficking SNAP benefits, according to a news release.

The USDA proposes increasing fines and expulsions for retailers and has issued guidelines to states to prevent those ineligible from joining the rolls, such as checking databases for deaths, previous disqualifications or criminal records.

In recent years, the USDA has made a major push to get SNAP benefits accepted at farmers markets, recently embarking on a $4 million grant program to provide equipment to markets.

Fewer than 2,000 of the more than 7,500 markets nationally have access to electronic benefits, although the USDA’s goal is to have more than 6,000 markets outfitted for the program, Concannon said.

The under secretary’s announcement comes as top USDA officials have seemed to ratchet up public appearances and media interviews to tout various initiatives as the presidential election draws near.

Also on Aug. 9, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan teleconferenced with reporters to announce that Ohio will be the first state to participate in a USDA program to enhance interstate shipment of meat and poultry products.

In recent months, Merrigan made a three-day trip to California to promote jobs around “local” food; Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano toured the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, after Vilsack held a national teleconference on wildfire readiness; and Vilsack called reporters to discuss various USDA projects in California.

Agency officials have rejected any suggestion that their activities are tied to the election, arguing they’ve worked to be visible all along. Concannon said the SNAP crackdown is part of a waste-cutting effort President Obama started in 2009.

Still, the nutrition program’s swelling rolls are a potentially thorny issue for Obama, who former GOP presidential contender Newt Gingrich called a “food stamp president” during the winter primaries. More than 46 million Americans now receive the benefit.

Concannon said the rate of misuse is only about 1 percent of cases, but the cost is in the millions of dollars.

“We cannot afford such losses,” he said. “We’re very mindful of public confidence. We want to make sure the benefits only go to those who qualify for them.”

Online

Stop SNAP Fraud: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud

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