California’s lagging participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is costing thousands of households the chance to have healthy food and depriving the state economy of needed stimulus, one top administration official said at a congressional hearing.

In the most recent figures, California served only 48% of those eligible to participate in the program, compared to a 66% national average, according to Lisa Pino, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service. Pino spoke at a House Agriculture nutrition subcommittee hearing on Jan. 25 in Colton, Calif.

What’s more, she said only 43% of eligible Latinos participated in the SNAP program in California, well off the national average of 56%.

By simply increasing participation by 5%, she said California would benefit by nearly $200 million in resulting economic activity.

Pino suggested California implement changes in its administration of the SNAP program, including simplifying its client reporting, expanding eligibility, offering phone interviews instead of face-to-face interviews, eliminating fingerprint image requirements and expanding electronic applications.

She also suggested a more aggressive outreach to the Latino community, including communication about the nutritional benefits of the SNAP program.

Pino said the USDA has begun a $20 million Healthy Incentives Pilot program to determine if incentives provided to SNAP recipients at the point of sale might increase the purchases of fruits and vegetables and other healthful foods.

She also said the USDA continues to authorize farmers markets for SNAP purchases. The number of farmers markets that could use SNAP benefits increased 25% in fiscal year 2009, compared to 2008.

Matthew Marsom, director of public health policy and advocacy for the Oakland, Calif.-based Public Health Institute, said in his testimony that education efforts geared toward SNAP recipients should emphasize consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, low-fat milk products, whole grains products and lean and vegetarian protein sources.

“By empowering parents and their children to make healthy choices, SNAP (education) can and must play a greater role in improving dietary and physical activity practices,” he said in prepared remarks.