Owing to irregularities, the Ministry of Social Development and Family Services is investigating the Food Support programme.
A media statement from the ministry on Friday assured that the programme has not been suspended. It said the investigation is to ensure that the beneficiaries are those eligible and in need of the support. The ministry believes that several policies, procedural, and other changes must be made to effectively manage the programme and its related expenditure. The statement said the programme addresses food insecurity via a cash transfer, a card or cheque, to reduce poverty. It provides nutritional food support to many vulnerable households.
The ministry said one-three people per household get $510, four-five people per household get $650, and six-plus people per household get $800. It said, "All recipients of the Food Support Grant must be assessed regularly to ensure that they remain eligible for the grants paid by the ministry, in accordance with the legislation and policy and procedures."
It quoted line minister Donna Cox as saying the ministry has considered reviewing all clients receiving food support to ensure the eligibility status and that the necessary approvals, and authority to make payment, are in place.
"The ministry took this approach with a view to ensuring that only those clients who meet the eligible criteria receive the food support," Cox said.
The ministry’s Social Welfare Division was instructed to take the new applications and refer these to the Central Office repository.
Given that new applicants will be impacted, the ministry said it is making every effort to provide temporary support to those in need by issuing temporary food cards and food vouchers, where necessary.
Some of the irregularities were beneficiaries being employed and never reporting their status change or indicating that they no longer require support.
The ministry found that some clients were simultaneously receiving multiple grants like senior citizens' pension, public assistance and disability assistance grants.
Some beneficiaries are housed at community care facilities, and the ministry pays the full cost of their upkeep, including all meals. The ministry also found that some beneficiaries live abroad. Some use the food cards to buy items like alcohol and cigarettes, but not food.
People also use food cards in exchange for cash. People also apply for cards to feed their children in the household, but the children did not benefit from the grant. The ministry reassures the public that none of the existing clients have been removed. Removal will only be done based on a proper assessment of each case.
The statement said, "Clients on the programme are also guaranteed that they can continue to use their card and cheques provided to acquire food for their household."
Responding to the ministry’s decision to review the programme, UNC’s public relations officer Dr Kirk Meighoo, criticised the minister, saying she feels she can decide who is "needy or greedy" during this severe economic and food crisis.
On Saturday, in a release, Meighoo questioned the expenditure on social assistance during the pandemic.
"Where has the $5 billion or $20 billion in covid relief gone? The UNC repeats its is call for a forensic investigation," Meighoo said. "...Citizens are ready to vote them out and remove them for good."
Couva North MP Ravi Ratiram, commenting on the issue, queried a report his office got that the National Agricultural Marketing and Development Corporation’s (Namdevco) food hamper support programme had been stopped.
In a statement on Friday, he said his office got a phone call from staffers at Namdevco advising them about the temporary discontinuation of its food box programme.
“In light of the continued escalation of food prices, this Food Box Programme would have provided much-needed relief to our most vulnerable in society,” his statement said.
Ratiram called on Agriculture Minister Clarence Rambharat called on Rambharat and the Government to "show compassion and consideration" to the less fortunate who desperately need the monthly food box.
The opposition MP said, “This programme should continue, at least until sustainable job opportunities can be created and the Government is able to lift this country out of the economic rut that they have thrown us (citizens) in.”