Jim Weill: There has been a lot of research on the harms of food insecurity, especially to children and seniors, and how helpful SNAP is in averting such harms, including bad health outcomes. What is the Administration doing to continue its efforts to reach more eligible people and to encourage access to healthier food through the program?

Secretary Vilsack: Let me start by saying I’m proud of our team at USDA for the expansion of SNAP in terms of reaching more eligible people in this country. When President Obama took office, roughly 72 percent of those eligible were participating in the program; today, that percentage is 85 percent. We have really placed an emphasis on partnerships with states, particularly lower-performing states, to express to them that it is their responsibility to make sure that there is adequate outreach to people who may need SNAP, and to encourage them to participate. I think that work is paying off.

There are still a couple of areas where we need to continue to work. One area is with our senior citizens. Seniors, for a variety of reasons, may have a hard time participating in SNAP. It may be that they think of the program as welfare – it’s not. It’s nutrition assistance. Everyone benefits when seniors have access to healthier food. For instance, when seniors eat nutritious foods, they are going to have fewer health problems. And, if they have fewer health problems, they are going to spend less health care dollars in the Medicare program, which benefits the entire country.

We at USDA are looking at ways in which we can make it a bit easier for seniors who are eligible for SNAP. The reality is that some seniors may have a hard time physically getting to an office to complete the necessary paperwork for SNAP. Let’s figure out how we might be able to make it easier, through online applications or through some other mechanism, for seniors to access information about SNAP in a convenient way.

In addition a recertification every year makes sense for a family where mom or dad may get a job, a higher paying job, or a raise, which may impact their income on a yearly basis. However, annual recertification doesn’t make sense for seniors who are living on a fixed income. Why not figure out a way for seniors to be recertified every several years?

Another area of focus for USDA is making sure that people participating in SNAP have access to nutritious foods. For example, we’ve expanded the number of farmers’ markets where SNAP benefits can be redeemed. There are now about 6,400 farmers’ markets accepting SNAP, which is a substantial increase since the time I became Secretary. We’re also working with nonprofit organizations to leverage our SNAP dollars with their dollars. Through the Senior Farmers’ Market Nutrition Program, seniors on SNAP are encouraged to purchase more fresh fruits and vegetables so they get the benefit of more nutritious choices.

All of this is being done to improve SNAP participation. At the same time, we also want to withstand the attacks on SNAP by making sure people understand that 80 percent of SNAP beneficiaries are senior citizens, people with severe disabilities, and people in the workforce with children. We’re working very aggressively to help adults without dependents who are able to work and want to find work – by connecting  them to employment opportunities, so they need less SNAP, if at all.

All of this is a collective, concerted effort on the part of FRAC and its network of anti-hunger advocates and USDA to make sure we reduce the level of food insecurity in this country, which is still too high. We’ve seen a reduction, but there is still work to do.