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WASHINGTON, D.C. — New eligibility standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could easily lead to “unintended consequences” forcing convenience store retailers to no longer accept food stamps, U.S. Rep. James P. McGovern (D-Mass.) said during a Thursday press conference.
The news conference took place on the same day as the House Agriculture Committee held a public hearing entitled “The Past, Present and Future of SNAP: The Retailer Perspective.” McGovern is a member of the House Agriculture Committee.
Witnesses included Doug Beech, counsel for Casey's General Stores Inc., Ankeny, Iowa; Carl Martincich, vice president of human resources and risk management for Love's Travel Stops and Country Stores, Oklahoma City; Jimmy Wright, owner of Wright's Market, Opelika, Ala.; and Kathy Hanna, senior director of enterprise payments and store support for The Kroger Co., Cincinnati.
“It could be easier for a retailer to not accept SNAP,” McGovern said. “If this happens, people might have to get on a bus or drive for miles to find someone who will accept SNAP. And if they live in rural areas, good luck.”
Proposed new USDA standards, published Feb. 17, state a retailer must meet certain eligibility requirements, including so-called "depth of stock" requirements that stipulate the minimum number of food items they must offer for sale at any given time.
As expected, the proposed new rules will implement statutory provisions of the 2014 Farm Bill, which require retailers to stock more varieties of products in four "staple food" categories: meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy.
Specifically, retailers must stock no fewer than seven different varieties of food items in each of the four staple food categories. Prior to the 2014 Farm Bill, retailers had to stock three different varieties in each staple food category. In addition, retailers will be required to offer at least one perishable food item in three of the categories, rather than two.
Noting that the goal of the new SNAP requirements is to promote healthier eating habits among all Americans, McGovern remarked: “The bottom line is we should encourage healthy diets, but this is not the way to do it. We can agree that considering where some convenience stores are located in rural areas, there is little that can be done [to ensure a healthier diet].”
The USDA proposal also disqualifies any retailer from accepting SNAP if 15 percent of more of their profits come from selling hot foods. This could be especially troubling for convenience store retailers, who continue to add more high-margin hot food offerings to their stores.
Approximately 6,000 of 7-Eleven Inc.’s 8,000 U.S. c-stores currently sell hot food, according to Dennis Lane, a 7-Eleven franchise owner in Quincy, Mass., who took part in the press conference.
His store does not. Still, for his 7-Eleven location and the other approximately 2,000 7-Eleven stores that could continue to accept food stamps if the rule is implemented, Lane said the new eligibility standards would force decreased profits, meaning he will not be able to hire as many as people from the community to work at his store.
“I’ve been doing this for 42 years. We feed our communities and neighborhoods,” Lane said. “I don’t want to see people become collateral damage. It disadvantages folks who are already disadvantaged.”
Lane, however, did say that even if the new SNAP proposal is enforced, he will do whatever it takes to keep accepting food stamps in order to assist lower-income individuals in the Quincy neighborhood.
BACK TO THE DRAWING BOARD
While McGovern is sympathetic to the plight of retailers, whose profitability could be threatened if the new standards are implemented, he is far more concerned about low-income individuals who may have to go home hungry every night.
“There are tens of millions of Americans hungry in the richest country in the history of the world,” asserted the Massachusetts representative. “We should be ashamed of ourselves.”
Legislators and the USDA must go “back to the drawing board” to make sure more favorable eligibility standards eventually get passed, McGovern stated.
Fellow press conference speaker Jessica Bartholow of the Western Center on Law & Poverty added that she wholeheartedly agrees with McGovern.
“SNAP is the No. 1 way to prevent hunger,” she said. “Too many people live in food deserts, with 2.3 million people living in rural food deserts [throughout the country]. The [proposed] rules are harmful, even if unintended.”
NACS, the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing, also opposes the proposed new SNAP eligibility requirements. For more on its take on the subject and its efforts to stop the proposed changes, click here.