It always starts with good intentions. In the case of a massive food stamp fraud scheme outside of Miami in Florida, the good intention was letting those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, aka “food stamps,” purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at open farmers’ markets. The problem: a number of vendors in the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market were willing to swipe the EBT cards of the benefit recipients and, for a cut of the cash, dole out dollars rather than actually selling any produce to the customer.
“These retailers are flagrantly abusing the public trust by stealing millions of dollars from the federal food stamp program that is intended to provide low-income households with their needed basic provisions of food and nutrition,” [Wifredo A. Ferrer, the U.S. attorney for the Southern District of Florida, said Wednesday.]
When all was said and done in the flea market raid that happened earlier this week, 22 people were charged with fifteen being arrested in relation cases of known food stamp fraud that cost the government and tax payers $2.4 million that was intended to help keep the poor nourished with fresh foods. A list of the defendants can be found at the Miami Herald.
Throughout South Florida, Ferrer claims that there is even more abuse to the tune of $13 million traced in questionable EBT card transactions, thus prompting the claim that the raid earlier in the week was the largest food stamp fraud bust in U.S. history.
Jack Heacock, director of the Florida Division of Public Assistance Fraud, said the arrests were only the beginning. Those people who received the money will likely be sanctioned, he said.
The defendants, all of whom were authorized to accept food stamps, face charges of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and food stamp/EBT fraud, according to the indictments.
The fresh food outlet additions were an attempt to address a growing problem in the inner cities and poor areas of the country where access to fresh foods is scarce. These parts of town are known in the hunger relief industry as “food deserts,” where the local food market is more likely to be the convenience section of a gas station than a grocer. Despite the skepticism of outlets such as Judicial Watch, these areas do exist, and the lack of availability of fresh, healthy foods does effect the health and well being of the poor, or in politically correct terminology, “food insecure.” (Don’t forget, we end up paying for this via medicaid sooner or later.)
The EBT card expansion was a flawed plan at best to deal with this issue, but outright fraud in cashing in the cards with the cooperation of the vendor is something else entirely. Video of the raid can be seen at MiamiHerald.com.