WASHINGTON, April 6, 2016 - The debate over a controversial USDA proposal to make convenience stores that participate in the food stamp program sell healthier foods just got more oxygen now that the department has added an extra month for public comment.

Those comments will be weighed heavily, and USDA may make significant changes to its latest proposal to change the food stamp program, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Kevin Concannon, USDA’s under secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services, promised during a recent House Agriculture Committee hearing.

USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service, under pressure from Republican lawmakers and the food and retail industries to extend the comment period, announced on Tuesday that that it will accept suggestions on the proposed rule until May 18, a month beyond the original April 18 deadline. Agriculture Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and panel member Jackie Walorski, R-Ind., were among lawmakers who had asked for the extension.

One of the areas that may see revision in the final rule is just what constitutes a variety of food staple. Currently, retailers need to keep in stock three varieties of a food item in each of four basic categories in order to continue to be able to accept SNAP payments: dairy; breads and cereals; meat, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables. Under a “depth of stock” provision in the proposed rule, that requirement will jump to seven varieties. But USDA still hasn’t closed the books on exactly what kind of food varieties it will require convenience stores to carry.

FNS said it cannot raise or lower the number of varieties from seven – that new level was mandated in the 2014 farm bill – but it does want public input on what exactly constitutes a variety. For example, could four different kinds of chicken products be considered four different meat varieties? Or do they have to be different kinds of meat?

Conaway, at a March 17 hearing, asked a seemingly simple question: If a convenience store stocked a can of chicken noodle soup, would that fulfill the meat variety requirement, the vegetable requirement, or both?

FNS Administrator Audrey Rowe said that was still unclear. So that’s another issue that the agency will have to tackle as it reviews public comments and prepares to write a final rule.

FNS’ proposed rule, released on Feb. 17, was specific in stating that multiple-ingredient foods like soup would no longer be considered a “staple food.” Currently such products can count as just one, depending on their primary ingredient, but FNS said in the rule that it’s just too complicated. 

“Commercially processed foods and prepared mixtures with multiple ingredients that do not represent a single staple food category shall not be counted in any staple food category,” FNS said in the proposed rule. “Examples of such foods include cold pizza, macaroni and cheese, multiple-ingredient soup, sandwiches, TV dinners, and pot pies.”

The provision to disqualify multiple-ingredient foods is still in the proposed rule, but now FNS is suggesting it may change its mind.

About two weeks after Conaway’s question about chicken noodle soup, the USDA agency said in a statement: “FNS appreciates the questions it has received from commenters on multiple ingredient foods under the proposed rule and encourages additional comments from the public on this provision of the proposed rule. FNS is particularly interested in comments from the public as to whether certain types of foods with multiple ingredients should continue to be counted as staple foods, including toward variety, perishables, or depth of stock requirements.”

It’s a very important issue, said the American Frozen Food Institute. In a letter to FNS, the group said it is very concerned about the agency’s push to make “multi-ingredient foods no longer count as a staple food.” 

“This change has the potential to cause many downstream effects both in the supply chain and in SNAP recipients’ access to food,” AFFI said

Full-size grocery stores that sell hundreds of varieties of fruit, vegetables, bread and meat will have no problems with the new “depth of stock” requirements, but for convenience stores that sell much less food and are often connected to a gasoline station, the FNS proposal could push some out of the SNAP program. 

John Orow, president of United Fuels LLC, said the changes would be devastating because his 28 convenience stores in 19 states just can’t get the groceries from his distributor. Orow, in a letter to FNS, said the company that supplies his stores told him: “As proposed, we do not see how we can meet the stringent criteria to continue participation. Nor do we think it is likely that most convenience stores will be able to continue participation." 

That would be a major problem for both store owners and many of their clients who have nowhere else to shop, said David Fialkov, a vice president for NATSO, a group representing truck stops and travel plazas. 

“Many NATSO members’ convenience stores redeem SNAP benefits. These stores are often located in rural areas with few other places for local, economically disadvantaged residents to purchase food. These residents rely on our members’ stores,” he said. “If these stores could no longer participate in SNAP, many SNAP beneficiaries would be forced to travel long distances to purchase SNAP-eligible products.” 

The issue is also a major one for the National Association of Convenience Stores, said Director of Government Relations Anna Ready, who said it’s an example of USDA going beyond what was mandated in the 2014 farm bill.

“We supported the numbers in the farm bill. We were waiting for the rules to codify those requirements,” Ready said. “We did not expect (FNS) to change the underlying definition of staple foods to exclude multiple-ingredient items.”

Those multiple-ingredient items – like a can of soup or a pot pie – that currently count towards a category of food in the SNAP requirements are extremely important to convenience stores that have much less shelf space to stock items, Ready said.


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