WASHINGTON, May 11, 2016 - If USDA implements its proposed rule overhauling retailer requirements for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), tens of thousands of convenience stores would stop accepting the government benefits once known as food stamps, the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) says, citing a member survey.
The survey, a copy of which was obtained by Agri-Pulse, has been distributed to some lawmakers and created immediate impact. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, and Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the panel’s ranking Democrat, drafted a letter to USDA asking that it change the proposed rule and are now gathering signatures.
“We are concerned this proposal will have unintended adverse effects on SNAP beneficiaries by forcing many small-format retailers out of the program, which would limit a family’s access to food,” the lawmakers wrote in the draft letter. “We urge you to reflect the careful balance reached in the statutory language under the Agricultural Act of 2014 (the farm bill) and apply those policies to your final rule.”
Based on its survey, NACS says about 47,000 convenience stores would be barred immediately from participating in SNAP if the USDA’s proposed rule were implemented as it stands now. That’s because of a provision specifying that stores won’t be able to accept SNAP if more than 15 percent of what they sell is “cooked or heated on-site before or after purchase.”
One person not swayed by the group that represents more than 154,000 convenience stores across the country is Kevin Concannon, USDA’s under secretary for food, nutrition and consumer services.
Concannon told Agri-Pulse that the rule is still in its proposal stage and changes are possible, but he pushed back at claims by NACS that it would have a devastating effect on the industry.
“I’ve heard from the industry and much of what they said is greatly exaggerated,” Concannon said. “All this rule, at its core, requires is that there be more choices of healthy foods for the low-income people who choose to use their (SNAP) benefits in those stores. We’re not asking them to turn themselves into Whole Foods or Wegmans supermarkets. We’re simply asking for a very modest increase in the amount of healthy foods.”
The proposed rule would require all retail stores that accept SNAP benefits to stock at least seven different products in each of USDA’s staple food groups: meat, poultry, or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy. The current regulation requires three of each.
But that isn’t the biggest challenge, opponents say. Gone will be the days when a store could stock cans of chicken noodle soup and have that count as a required item. As of now that can of chicken noodle soup can be counted as a meat item or a vegetable item, but under the proposed rule it would count as neither. That’s because USDA wants single-ingredient items – like carrots or broccoli – available to SNAP users.
Citing the survey, NACS says 91,624 stores out of the current 106,531 of its members that accept SNAP would no longer be able to stay in the government nutrition program because of the single-ingredient provision.
“Today, in over 99,000 stores, 75 percent or more of all items in stock are multiple-ingredient items such as mixed fruit cups, frozen vegetable medley dinners, canned soups, etc.,” NACS says in a presentation distributed to lawmakers.
And then there is the “depth of stock” issue. USDA doesn’t just want stores to have one head of lettuce to fulfill the vegetable/fruit requirement. Stores have to have six units of each of the seven items in the four staple food categories. Retailers would also be required to offer at least one perishable food item in three of those categories, up from two categories. About 70 percent of the survey respondents said they couldn’t meet that requirement, NACS says.
For small convenience stores with limited budgets, shelf space and distribution options, these requirements are just not feasible, NACS and some lawmakers argue.
Concannon disagrees. He says there’s no reason why convenience stores can’t make the changes necessary to stock jugs of milk, bunches of bananas and heads of lettuce for all consumers.
“Many of these stores barely meet the (current) requirements and they have almost no healthy foods,” Concannon said. “They are more centers for potato chips, sugar-sweetened beverages, cigarettes and other items.”
On NACS’s lobbying on Capitol Hill, he said, “It’s an example of moneyed interest groups that just refuse to acknowledge the problem that low-income people have in this country in accessing healthy food.” And, as to lawmakers, he added: “Some of those voices who are suggesting that this is too much will be complaining later in the year, saying they don’t like the fact that low-income people spend their SNAP benefits on sugar-sweetened drinks and potato chips.”
But representatives of the convenience store industry stress that most of their retailers just can’t conform to what USDA is proposing, and that would be tragic for many people who don’t live near a large grocery store.
One thing is certain, though: Debate over the proposed rule is far from over on Capitol Hill. Concannon testified at a House Agriculture Committee hearing on it last month and the panel is scheduled to take up the issue again Thursday.
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