New federal regulations intended to promote healthy eating could make it harder to use food stamps at convenience stores – a change that opponents say will leave disadvantaged people with fewer places to buy groceries.
The standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require retailers that accept food stamps to stock more and fresher varieties of food. But many convenience stores won’t be able to meet the requirements and will be forced from the the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, or food stamps, critics say.
Almost 12,000 households in Whatcom County receive food stamps, according to the most recent U.S. Census data. That’s about 15 percent of the households in the county. In the rural communities of Glacier, Deming, Peaceful Valley, Custer, Marietta-Alderwood and Acme, more than 25 percent of households receive SNAP benefits.
Critics of the USDA proposal complain the new standards will be impossible for many convenience stores and rural markets to meet.
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As a result, they warn, tens of thousands of stores across the country could stop accepting food stamps.
51% Percentage of Americans who live less than 1 mile from a convenience store, according to the National Association of Convenience Stores
The impact would be felt especially in so-called food deserts in rural areas and urban centers, where big-box groceries are few and far between, said Anna Ready, director of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores, a trade association.
“We can’t push small stores out of the program because they play a critical role by providing access to nutrition,” Ready said.
Republicans and Democrats alike have raised objections. Kansas Sen. Pat Roberts, the Republican chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee who opposes the bill, pointed out: nearly half the Senate signed onto a letter to USDA that critiqued the proposal, including Democrats Patty Murray of Washington state, Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Bill Nelson of Florida and Independent Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
“This broad bipartisan showing . . . goes to show this proposed rule is headed in the wrong direction,” said Roberts. “This is not what we intended when we wrote the last Farm Bill.”
The USDA says the proposal is intended to ensure that SNAP beneficiaries have access to healthy food choices, especially in areas where they don’t have much choice about where to shop.
“It is disappointing to see some take a position against increasing healthier food options for our most vulnerable,” said USDA spokeswoman Cathy Cochran in a statement.
Cochran said the agency is in the process of analyzing public comments on the proposal, which is likely to change before implementation.
“(W)e are confident the final rule, when issued, will succeed in increasing food choices without harming small retailers,” she said.
USDA drafted its proposal to codify language in the 2014 Farm Bill that required stores that accept SNAP to offer seven varieties of food items in each of four staple food categories. Those categories are meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy.
The law states stores must include at least one perishable item in three of those categories. This more than doubles the varieties of foods stores will have to stock to 28, a change convenience store owners say they do not oppose.
Their problem, they say, is with how the USDA interpreted the law.
In particular, convenience store owners object to a new definition of what constitutes a staple food. Under the USDA’s proposal, products with more than two ingredients, such as soups or frozen dinners, no longer count.
Another major concern with USDA’s proposal is the requirement that six items from each of the seven food varieties must be displayed on a shelf at all times.
Ninety percent of small stores currently authorized to accept food stamps – about 175,000 stores nationwide – would need to add inventory items to meet the new requirements, according to USDA.
The agency estimates the average store would need to stock 54 additional items, at a one-time cost of around $140.
But that estimate could be too low, according to a letter submitted to USDA by the advocacy office of the U.S. Small Business Administration.
In the letter, SBA officials predicted that initial compliance costs for each store could be closer to $600, and overall costs might exceed $4,000 per store.
Compliance with the stocking requirements will be difficult for convenience stores in part because of their size, said Ready, of NACS.
Convenience stores are on average about 3,000 square feet, about 15 times smaller than the average supermarket, Ready said.
“Our stores just don’t have the space,” she said. “That means we’d have to have more in storage to continually replace anything that sells. We’d have to make major changes to supply and delivery chains and also possibly to store layout and store space.”
Even stores that do meet the stocking requirements, she said, still could be deemed ineligible. That’s because USDA’s proposal disqualifies businesses with more than 15 percent of total food sales in items that are “cooked or heated on site before or after purchase.”
The change aims to ensure SNAP benefits are used as intended, for groceries, not restaurants or take out.
But Ready says it could bar the growing number of convenience stores that sell pizza or bake bread from participating in the SNAP program.