Dennis Lane has owned a 7-Eleven franchise in Quincy, Massachusetts for 42 years. He says many of his customers use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP or food stamps) benefits to buy staple foods.
“I sell 150 gallons of milk a day in my neighborhood,” he said. “A lot of those folks use SNAP.”
Soon, Lane’s store’s SNAP eligibility could be in question due to a recently proposed rule by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) that would require retailers to stock an expanded list of foods to remain eligible for participation in the food assistance program. The rule would also eliminate from the SNAP program retailers with 15 percent or more of their store sales from hot, prepared food.
“If stores are getting the benefit of a SNAP purchase, we should make sure participants have the option of healthier foods… and prevent restaurants from participating in SNAP,” a USDA spokesperson told Civil Eats.
But Lane says the rules could further “disadvantage folks who are already disadvantaged.”
The rule would mainly affect small retailers, such as convenience stores, in communities without full-service grocery stores. And it’s drawing fire from some anti-poverty advocates and retailers who say these changes might actually make it harder for people in under-resourced areas and “food deserts” to access whole and fresh foods.
Under USDA’s proposal, instead of the current requirement calling for three varieties of food in each of four staple food categories—dairy, produce, breads and cereals, and meats, poultry, and fish—retailers would have to stock at least seven varieties in each category. Stores would also have to carry perishable food in three of these categories instead of two.
These changes might sound like an obvious boon to SNAP users, but if convenience stores don’t—or aren’t able to—make the changes, and comply with the hot food provision, it could result in broad swaths of communities where SNAP users would be unable to buy any food at all.
Speaking on a recent conference call with Lane and others who oppose the rules. Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty said, “We should be looking for ways to reduce hunger in food deserts. The proposed rule will increase hunger in food deserts.”
Representative Jim McGovern (D-Massachusetts) added that he worries about “serious unintended consequences” if the rule is passed. “I know convenience stores that are the only source of groceries in some communities and often the only place that accepts SNAP benefits,” said McGovern, adding that many “SNAP beneficiaries work non-traditional hours or several jobs to make ends meet and have to shop when grocery stores are closed.”
Barriers to Change
According to USDA, SNAP currently serves about 45 million Americans, nearly half of whom are children, and 10 percent of whom are elderly. And while most federal food benefits are used at large stores, small stores remain a vital resource for many, particularly in low-income communities. The USDA proposal comes at time when Congress is proposing to cut 20 percent of SNAP’s funding over the next 10 years–cuts on top of those that removed 500,000 to 1 million recipients from the program in 2016 and reduced benefits by an average of 7 percent in 2013.
What’s keeping convenience store owners from changing their stock lists to accommodate the USDA’s proposal? One issue is perishability. The USDA is asking for more foods that could require a different, less shelf-stable approach than many of these stores currently take, and Lane says that could lead to more waste, which could ultimately effect their bottom lines. Some small independent stores have said they would welcome technical assistance for stocking and selling more fresh food.
“I sell some items in each of those categories,” explained Lane. But he said, “We just can’t see reaching a point where we’re throwing food away.” Yet he added, “I’m feeding my neighborhood and will do whatever it takes to remain SNAP eligible.”
And yet, rather than responding directly to the proposal to change the types of foods they supply, most convenience store owners appear to be opposed to the cut-off for SNAP eligibility based on hot food sales. That’s what Lane and a number of other retailers objected to while testifying at a May 12 House Agriculture Committee hearing about the rules.
Testifying on behalf of the National Association of Convenience Stores, Douglas Beech explained that USDA’s proposal would disqualify from SNAP participation all 1,900 outlets of Casey’s General Stores, the company for which he works. About 40 percent of the company stores’ sales come from hot food prepared on-site. So under the proposed rule, they would lose SNAP eligibility—even if this food cannot be bought through SNAP.
Last week, members of the Congressional Black Caucus wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack expressing their concern about the USDA proposal. They say the hot food sales provision will result in communities losing much needed small food stores. “If a store meets all other relevant requirements, it should not be penalized for also selling hot foods,” they wrote.
The USDA proposal is open for public comment until May 18. After reviewing those comments, USDA expects to issue a final rule toward the end of this year. Once finalized, retailers will have a year to comply with the new regulations. But that may not happen so smoothly.
Last month the House Appropriations Committee added an amendment to the 2017 Agriculture Appropriations Bill that would delay implementation of USDA’s proposal, however it is finalized. Introduced with bipartisan support, the amendment was opposed by some progressive Democrats, including Representatives Rosa DeLauro (D-Conneticut) and Chellie Pingree (D-Maine).
“I voted against that rider,” Pingree told Civil Eats by email. She believes the onus is on the convenience stores to make changes. “I feel it’s important that people who receive SNAP have access to as many healthy food choices as possible. The rule doesn’t force any store to carry any specific product, but if a convenience store wants to benefit from taking SNAP payments, it should need to meet some very minimal requirements in the kind of products they offer.”
Pingree isn’t alone in the larger effort to balance the longer-term goal of improving American’s food landscape with the day-to-day reality, where, for better or worse, convenience stores are keeping some people from going hungry.
“In the long term, it would be great to transform the food system so there are more options,” said Tracey Ross, associate director of Center for American Progress “Poverty to Prosperity” program. Ross points to efforts like DC Central Kitchen—a program, like others in Illinois, Louisiana, and Minnesota and elsewhere, that is working to get healthy food in small neighborhood stores. But in the meantime, she acknowledges that the USDA’s proposal is part of an important ongoing conversation about the role of the convenience store in preventing hunger.
“These corner stores are part of the food landscape,” said Ross. “We have to find a way to make them a viable option.”
The Union of Concerned Scientists (UCSUS) has also shown general support for the proposed rules, but the group points out that technical assistance for store owners as an important piece of the puzzle. In the case of a similar ordinance that was passed in Minneapolis in 2010, the city opted to provide one-on-one technical assistance to store owners on produce handling and merchandising.
“Considering that the U.S. spends approximately $176 billion a year on diabetes-related medical costs and $69 billion in reduced worker productivity,” wrote the UCSUS’ food systems and health analyst Lindsey Haynes-Maslow on the group’s website recently. “We think it might be worth it to offer additional funding to help stores comply with the new requirements.”