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Food Stamps soon to be distributed via electronic transfer cards

Director Muavaefaatasi John Suisala and Deputy Director Panesia Neuely

Pago Pago, AMERICAN SAMOA — Recipients of the Department of Human and Social Services’ Food Stamp Program will soon, no longer be required to make the monthly trip to the Food Stamp Office at Utulei to uplift their Food Stamps, but instead will be able to access them using Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

This is according to the testimony of DHSS Director Muavaefaatasi John Suisala before the Senate Human and Social Services Committee yesterday morning.

The matter was raised by Senator Uti Petelo Uti who stated that he feels sorry for the elderly and those with special needs who he has witnessed on several occasions are being assisted to the Food Stamp office every month.

He recalled that one was blind and had to be led to the office.

He said that on arrival, they then have to wait for 30 minutes, sometimes up to an hour before their names are called.

Senator Uti asked the DHSS director if it was possible to use cards like ATM cards to access their monthly food stamps to save them from having to make the trip to the Food Stamp Office, especially those elderly people who have to travel by bus from their villages.

Muavaefaatasi expressed empathy for those facing these difficulties as mentioned by Senator Uti, but he also pointed out that the elderly and those with special needs have the option of assigning an Authorized Representative (AR) to uplift their food stamps every month, if they are not able to make the trip.

He stated that a lot have assigned AR’s to uplift their monthly food stamps. However, he stated that some prefer to pick them up themselves saying that they don’t trust their children or relatives to do it for them.

He revealed that in the Food Stamp budget there are funds titled ASNAP EBT ARPA totaling $3,880,000 that they had secured in 2021, and he had requested USDA that the funds be earmarked for the implementation of EBT cards system so that Food Stamp clients could have easier access to their monthly food stamps and not have to come to the office.

Muavaefaatasi pointed out that EBT or Electronic Benefit Transfer is an electronic system that allows benefits to be disbursed via a magnetically encoded payment card used in the United States and reached nationwide operations in 2004.

He stated that the EBT system has been in use by the DHSS Women, Infants & Children’s (WIC) Program since 2017.

In fact, he pointed out that the American Samoa WIC Program was one of the first in the nation to transition to the EBT system.

The DHSS director added that part of the $3.8 million was used to hire a contractor as project manager to develop this program for the Food Stamp Program and the bidding process has been completed between the two companies, which specialize in EBT implementation in the mainland.

He said the contract has been awarded and is currently pending final review by the USDA and he has also requested that the transition to the EBT system be in effect before the end of the year.

Senator Uti questioned why the Food Stamps checks require that 20% be used for the purchase of local products because many local farmers tend not to accept Food Stamps saying they don’t have the time to redeem them from the Food Stamp Office.

Uti asked if this was a USDA requirement.

Muavaefaatasi explained that since the Food Stamp Program was established in 1994, Governor Lutali who was in office at the time was also a member of the Farmers’ Association and he reasoned that this was a good opportunity to promote and assist local farmers.

So 30% of Food Stamp funds was earmarked for local products.

But over time, Food Stamp clients began facing the same problem, so it was reduced to 20%

The DHSS director however clarified that local products — does not mean only agricultural produce like taro and bananas.

He pointed out that local products also include tuna products from the canneries, bread and the pastries from local bakeries and fish.