WASHINGTON, May 12, 2016 - USDA’s proposed rule to overhaul retailer requirements for its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program took a beating today by both Republicans and Democrats at a House Agriculture Committee hearing.
Convenience store owners and industry representatives say the rule would force tens of thousands of retailers to stop accepting SNAP, and lawmakers expressed outrage for much of the two-hour hearing.
Besides requiring retailers to greatly increase the amount of single-ingredient food like fruit, vegetables and meat they offer, the proposed rule would also ban stores from the program if more than 15 percent of what they sell is “cooked or heated on-site before or after purchase.”
Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, called the hearing the best example of a “bipartisan attack” on a government rule that he’d ever seen.
Democrat David Scott of Georgia was one of the harshest critics of the rule, calling it offensive and arguing it discriminates against low-income people who live in rural regions and often rely on convenience stores to buy food.
Scott said USDA appears to want to drive small retailers out of participating in SNAP and asked the four witnesses – all representatives of the retail industry - if they knew why: “I’m just at odds trying to figure out why is the Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service doing this,” Scott said.
None of the witnesses had an answer, but for the most part they agreed that the proposed rule, Enhancing Retailer Standards in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, would cripple the ability of convenience store to accept SNAP benefits.
Douglas Beech, legal counsel and director of government relations for Casey’s General Stores Inc., told the lawmakers that the proposed rule would push all 1,931 of his company’s stores out of SNAP.
The provision banning SNAP in locations where cooked food is sold would be insurmountable, Beech said: “We’re the fifth or sixth largest pizza retailer in the country and so we would just have to drop the SNAP program. We would not drop our hot foods program. It’s just too integral to our business.”
Casey’s processes about 5.5 million SNAP transactions per year, he said, but that would completely stop if the USDA implemented the rule in its present form.
“Convenience stores like Casey’s are frequently the only source of many grocery items in these communities and the only location where SNAP recipients can redeem their benefits,” Beech said.
Even Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass. – normally a staunch defender of how USDA operates SNAP – was critical of the proposed rule.
“I sympathize with the goal of making healthier foods available and getting people to make better choices, but I think the way you deal with that is you increase the benefits,” McGovern said. “And I worry about this rule potentially limiting access to people who rely on SNAP to put food on the table and putting them in situations that can make hunger worse. I know that’s not the intention of the USDA, but I think this is why we need to talk about this more.”
Conaway agreed that it was not USDA’s intention to make it more difficult for SNAP users to obtain the groceries from outlets that many depend on, and ended the hearing by stressing that he hopes USDA will rewrite the rule.