Monday, July 22, 2013
Food stamps are paying for trans-Atlantic takeout — with New Yorkers using taxpayer-funded benefits to ship food to relatives in Jamaica, Haiti and the Dominican Republic
Welfare recipients are buying groceries with their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards and packing them in giant barrels for the trip overseas. The practice is so common that hundreds of 45- to 55-gallon cardboard and plastic barrels line the walls of supermarkets in almost every Caribbean corner of the city. The federal authorities say that the movable feasts go against the intent of the $86 billion welfare program for impoverished Americans. A spokeswoman for the US Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service said that welfare benefits are reserved for households that buy and prepare food together. She said that states should intervene if people are caught shipping non-perishables abroad. Michael Tanner, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, called it just another example of welfare abuse. “I don’t want food-stamp police to see what people do with their rice and beans, but it’s wrong,” Tanner said. “The purpose of this program is to help Americans who don’t have enough to eat. This is not intended as a form of foreign aid.” The United States spent $522.7 million on foreign aid to the Caribbean in the last fiscal year, government data show. Still, New Yorkers say that they ship the food because staples available in the United States are superior and less costly than what their families can get abroad. “Everybody does it,” said a worker at an Associated Supermarket in Prospect Lefferts Gardens, Brooklyn. “They pay for it any way they can. A lot of people pay with EBT.” Customers pay cash for the barrels, usually about $40, and typically ship them filled with $500 to $2,000 worth of rice, beans, pasta, canned milk and sausages. Workers at the Pioneer Supermarket on Parkside Avenue and the Key Food on Flatbush Avenue have confirmed the practice. They said that food-stamp recipients typically take home their barrels and fill them gradually over time with food bought with EBT cards. When the tubs are full, the welfare users call a shipping company to pick them up and send them to the Caribbean for about $70. The shipments take about three weeks.