House Ag Republicans bash proposed SNAP rule

By Whitney Forman-Cook

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WASHINGTON, March 17, 2016 - Republicans on the House Agriculture Committee took on Kevin Concannon, USDA's under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, over a proposed rule that would change healthy food stocking requirements for convenience stores and gas stations that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.

What was intended to be a hearing full of “constructive dialog” between the lawmakers and three USDA under secretaries - as Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said in his opening statement - quickly became a fight over whether the Food and Nutrition Service's rule should have even been proposed.

Lets Talk Food

Now open to public comment, the rule would require that all stores that accept EBT (debit card) SNAP benefits must also stock no fewer than seven (the current regulation requires three) different products in each of USDA's staple food groups: meat, poultry, or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy.

Retailers would also be required to offer at least one perishable food item in three of those categories, up from two categories.

Conaway suggested the rule might push small stores to discontinue accepting SNAP benefits and pointed out to Concannon that no one with food retail experience was involved during the two years it took to draft the proposal.

Concannon said stores meeting the current standard would have to spend about $140 to come into compliance with the new requirements. “The final rule will reflect reality, it will not inadvertently end up costing us access to those convenience stores,” he said.

Conaway and Reps. Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., and Trent Kelly, R-Miss., asked Concannon to extend the comment period on the proposal.

By the end of the hearing, Concannon had said “there may be more than tweaking needed to make sure that it (the rule) is responsive to (rural) communities,” and that “it may be more complicated than it should be.”

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“It was a first cut,” Concannon said. “We certainly heard (that) from members today.”

Walorski said the rule created bigger problems by trying to address tiny ones. She took issue with one provision in the rule that would require all businesses under the same roof, even if just one accepted SNAP benefits, to comply with the stocking standards. “Why does USDA care about this? This is America!” she said.

Kelly was concerned that convenience stores and gas stations are the only source of food for some rural communities. And because the rule requires at least 85 percent of an entity's total food sales be items that are not cooked or heated on-site to accept SNAP benefits, something as simple as a slice a pizza might be harder to find.

“That (pizza) may be the only option for people who need it the most have,” Kelly said. “It may be the only thing in traveling distance.”

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