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.