Could a regulation intended to help people who receive federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, commonly known as SNAP, or food stamps, actually end up making their lives more difficult?
That’s the compelling argument being made by many, including our very own Patty Murray, in the face of a proposal from the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
With the best intentions in mind, the regulations would require retailers where SNAP benefits are accepted to offer more fresh food. The USDA is pushing the proposal in an effort to make sure food stamp recipients have access to healthier food choices.
As McClatchy’s Lindsay Wise reported this week, the USDA crafted its proposal to codify language from the 2014 Farm Bill requiring stores where SNAP benefits are accepted to offer seven varieties of food items in each of four staple food categories: meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy.
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The proposal would also require stores to offer at least one perishable item in three of these categories — more than doubling the varieties of foods stores will have to stock.
In the process of all this, the USDA also tweaked the definition of what constitutes a staple. Under the new proposal, products with more than two ingredients would no longer count. As Wise notes, think soups and frozen dinners.
The new proposal also mandates that six items from each of the seven food varieties be on the shelf at all times, and would disqualify stores where more than 15 percent of total food sales come from items that are “cooked or heated on-site before or after purchase.”
According to the USDA, roughly 175,000 small stores across the country would need to add inventory to meet these new requirements. The agency projects that the average store would require 54 additional items, at an initial cost of around $140. (Critics say that’s a low-ball estimate.)
This measure is the latest of several taken by USDA over the past seven years to provide our most vulnerable Americans with access to healthy foods.
Statement from the USDA
So what’s the big deal?
A bipartisan collection of lawmakers, as well as convenience store owners across the country, represented by the National Association of Convenience Stores, have taken issue with these changes, arguing that, cumulatively, they’ll be difficult — if not impossible — to abide by.
There’s a fear that, if the proposal becomes reality, many convenience stores will be pushed out of the SNAP program.
What the actual impacts might be is where the food stamp debate rages.
On the surface, it appears the USDA means well. It’s hard to argue with wanting to ensure that people eat quality food and making sure that those who rely on SNAP benefits (which, in Washington, are doled out through the Basic Food program) have the kind of access to these foods that they deserve.
“The vast majority of SNAP participants are children, the elderly, working families and the disabled,” reads a statement from a USDA spokesperson. “This measure is the latest of several taken by USDA over the past seven years to provide our most vulnerable Americans with access to healthy foods, especially in food deserts where access to healthy food is severely limited.”
That’s an unquestionably worthy goal.
But, if these new regulations are so onerous that they force a number of convenience stores out of the program — especially where there’s already a food desert, as many fear — it’s easy to see how these good intentions could end up having a detrimental effect.
In Tacoma, such results would be felt across the city, but perhaps nowhere more than in the South End and on the East Side.
JaiVonna Daniels is 21 years old and has lived at the Tacoma Housing Authority’s Salishan development her entire life.
Currently she shares a rental unit with her family and 1-year-old daughter.
Like many in this community, Daniels relies on SNAP benefits to help put food on the table.
She says convenience stores, for all their shortcomings, play an important role in helping people get by. Often, a trip to the grocery store, which requires a car or a bus trip, is difficult to manage.
There’s a lot of people who shop (at convenience stores). They have no way of getting to Safeway or Fred Meyer. All of the corner stores right near Salishan take EBT (electronic benefit transfer cards) or SNAP. They have milk and cheese and fruits and vegetables. ... If they didn’t take EBT, there would be no way for (people) to have access to that.
JaiVonna Daniels, Salishan resident
“There’s a lot of people who shop (at convenience stores). They have no way of getting to Safeway or Fred Meyer,” Daniels says. “All of the corner stores right near Salishan take EBT (electronic benefit transfer cards) or SNAP.
“They have milk and cheese and fruits and vegetables,” Daniels continues. “There’s a lot of elderly and disabled people, and they send their kids (to convenience stores) — walking or whatever. Even the little Asian market sells meat. If they didn’t take EBT, there would be no way for (people) to have access to that.”
East Side City Councilman Marty Campbell, who also works as the manager of the Salishan Association, has seen the dilemma firsthand.
“In areas like East Tacoma … the 7-Eleven becomes your de facto grocery store many days of the week,” Campbell says. “It’s hard to explain to people that the community was excited that the 7-Eleven came into the neighborhood, because that meant fresh milk, bread and just some of your basic staples.”
“Until there’s a grocery store within reasonable distance, people eat where it’s provided, and they need to be able to have equal access into those locations,” the councilman continues. “We need to find more ways to incentivize the businesses to carry the healthy products and to encourage people to buy them, rather than throwing in mandates that have absolutes in them.”
For its part, the USDA, which is currently analyzing public comment, hopes to have the new rules finalized by the end of the year. As a rebuttal to some of the hand-wringing, a spokesperson points out that “when stocking requirements were enhanced in the WIC Program, despite concerns and dire predictions, all stores were able to meet the new requirements, and no stores left the WIC program.”
“We are confident the final rule, when proposed, will succeed in increasing food choices without harming small retailers,” the USDA’s statement concludes.