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USDA moves to end questionable food stamp ads after criticism

 

The Department of Agriculture moved Friday to "cease future production" of advertisements that encourage people to go on food stamps, FoxNews.com has learned, following criticism over what was described as an "aggressive" campaign to grow enrollment. 

The department had come under fire for a 10-part series of Spanish-language "novelas" that trumpeted the benefits of the food stamp program. The radio ads were produced in 2008, but continued to be available for use. 

After those ads drew scrutiny, though, the USDA removed them from its website. 

Kevin Concannon, USDA undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, explained that the department will now move away from such ad campaigns. 

"The American people support helping those in need, but they want to know their tax dollars are being spent wisely. Many of the PSAs and ads on the agency's website were posted nearly 4 years ago and some of the content in these advertisements does not meet the standards of what I consider to be appropriate outreach," he said in a statement to FoxNews.com. 

"To that end, I have instructed the agency to remove these materials from our website and to cease future production of advertisements. These funds could be better invested in improving our oversight of this critically important program and that is exactly what I intend to do moving forward." 

The Spanish-language radio ads composed a 10-part miniseries called "Hope Park." In it, the characters were shown persistently trying to convince a character named "Diana" to go on food stamps -- known these days as SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program -- even though her husband works and she doesn't think she needs it. 

"I don't need help from anyone," Diana says in Episode 4. "My husband makes enough to take care of us." 

But her friends are persistent, and by Episode 10 Diana is enrolled and singing the program's praises. 

The ads drew criticism at a time when one in seven are already enrolled. 

The food stamp rolls have swelled since the recession, growing roughly 40 percent since 2009. As of April, more than 46 million people were in the program, which costs $80 billion a year. 

Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, slammed the campaign as a push to enroll individuals who don't feel they need it. 

"It has become increasingly clear that, in recent years, the mission of the food stamp program has been converted from targeted assistance for those in need into an aggressive drive to expand enrollment regardless of need," he said in a statement. "Food stamp spending has quadrupled since 2001, yet USDA complains that too many eligible people continue to resist enrollment. ... Read as a whole, USDA's activities suggest that the program administrators take personal offense when people who technically qualify for their largesse decline to accept -- and see it as an obstacle to overcome." 

Sessions noted the radio ads are part of an effort to enroll immigrants and non-citizens, who are eligible provided they meet certain requirements. 

The USDA notes that illegal immigrants cannot apply, however. 

"Non-citizens who are unlawfully present, are not, nor have they ever been, eligible to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits," the USDA said in a statement. "States must verify the immigration status of individuals who apply for benefits.  Individuals applying for SNAP are required to provide documentation of their immigration status as a condition of eligibility." 

As for the ad campaign itself, a USDA Food and Nutrition Service spokesman said earlier -- before the campaign was canned -- that it was targeted toward "communities most at risk for hunger." 

"Congress allocates funds to USDA with the mandate to conduct public education about the benefits of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and how to apply to help reduce hunger in America," the spokesman said. "Partner organizations use the public service announcements and other tools to connect eligible households with the information they need to make an informed decision about SNAP participation." 

The radio ads were among a series of USDA-sponsored ads produced between 2008 and 2012 to promote food stamp enrollment. 

The criticism over the ad campaigns comes amid debate on Capitol Hill over the proposed five-year farm bill funding food stamps. Proposals in the House and Senate seek to cut funding from the program.