WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2016 - A group that represents convenience stores and gas stations is up in arms over newly proposed requirements on retail food stores that accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits as payment.

The USDA’s proposed rule, released last week, would impose some anticipated requirements mandated by the 2014 farm bill, including requiring retailers to stock no fewer than seven (the current regulation requires three) different products in each of USDA’s four “staple food” categories: 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.

The Association for Convenience and Fuel Retailing maintains the rule goes beyond what is required by the farm bill, tacking on burdensome mandates.

The proposal says “multiple ingredient” items, like macaroni and cheese or pizza, cannot be counted in any staple food category or toward a retailer’s “depth of stock” requirements. Currently, mac and cheese counts as pasta and also meets the staple requirement for bread/cereal. The rule would also call on retailers to stock at least six units of a given food, bringing the total number of required food items per store to 168.

The group said in a statement that “as currently drafted, the proposal will make it increasingly difficult for convenience store owners and operators to participate in SNAP, which in turn will negatively impact the many SNAP recipients that use their benefits at NACS members’ stores.”

Kevin Concannon, the USDA under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, flat out disagrees.

Concannon told Agri-Pulse there are about 254,000 retail businesses in the country that are authorized to redeem SNAP benefits. Most of the benefits (just over 80 percent) are redeemed at big box and grocery stores that typically stock a diversity of healthy options, and aren’t likely to be affected by the rule. Some 13 to 17 percent are redeemed at convenience or small stores.

“Those small stores now receive billions of dollars each year through the SNAP program,” Concannon said. “It’s not like we’re asking for a sacrificial effort on part of the stores. It’s a reasonable expectation… that low-income people, who are spending those billions in stores, have more depth of stock and more healthy foods (available to them) to compete with the chips, beer and cigarettes,” he said.

Five years ago, USDA finalized a rule that increased healthy food stocking requirements on stores that redeemed Women, Infants and Children (WIC) benefits. Concannon said convenience stores and their lobbies claimed that the rule would “drive stores out of the WIC program” and create “access problems all over the country,” but in actuality, not one store, out of the 50,000 stores participating in WIC, left the program.

The rule “not only resulted in healthier foods for WIC recipients, but it helped other people who lived in those neighborhoods,” he said. “I would foresee a similar effect of this (SNAP) rule for people who live in some of these areas and are served by these stores.”

USDA doesn’t have a list of stores, or a projected number of stores that are already in compliance with the proposed requirements; however, a recent report released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found that many small stores that accept SNAP benefits “do not currently stock a variety of healthy offerings.” Upping the minimum stocking levels of healthy foods in small retail stores wouldn’t lead to population-wide changes in eating, the report said, but at least it’s a start.

Setting minimum stocking levels “is a necessary component of a comprehensive strategy that addresses both supply-side and demand-side barriers to healthy eating in an economically sustainable way,” the report said.

The public comment period on the proposed rule will close in about two months. Concannon expects the rule to be finalized and published in the Federal Register by the end of this year. After the rule is promulgated, stores will have a year to comply or to secure a waiver.


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