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
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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
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.”
provision to disqualify multiple-ingredient foods is still in the proposed
rule, but now FNS is suggesting it may change its mind.
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
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.”
change has the potential to cause many downstream effects both in the supply
chain and in SNAP recipients’ access to food,” AFFI said.
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.
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."
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.
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
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.
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.”
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,
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