“They’re just trying to make it easier for stores that don’t carry a lot of real food to be able to take SNAP benefits,” said Margo Wootan, the vice president of nutrition for CSPI.
The Trump administration’s proposed changes, critics say, chip away at an Obama-era mandate to provide SNAP recipients with access to more healthful foods. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to draft regulations that would require authorized stores to stock a wider variety of healthful products, in an attempt to combat food deserts in low-income neighborhoods, where families routinely do not have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
The rules finalized in 2016, under the Obama administration, required SNAP-authorized retailers to stock seven varieties (up from three) in four staple food groups. In other words, SNAP retailers would be required to stock seven kinds of qualifying foods in four core, or staple, groups: dairy products; fruits and vegetables; breads and cereals; and meats, poultry and fish. But Congress prevented the USDA from implementing the new stocking rules until the agency could modify its definition of what foods qualified as an appropriate variety.
Under core SNAP regulations, CSPI’s Wootan noted, staple foods are distinguished from accessory foods (such as ice cream, chips, sodas, whipped cream, pastries and other snacks and desserts) and prepared foods (such as ready-to-eat pizzas and soups or wrapped sandwiches and fruit cups). But under the Trump administration’s proposed rules, products that might previously have been classified as accessory foods may now be counted as staples, including pre-made burritos and pimiento-stuffed olives.
“So, if you’re counting canned spray cheese, nacho cheese dip and beef jerky and olives as staple food, then the retailer can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I’ve got seven [varieties]’ as opposed to saying they have chicken and turkey and fish and other real foods available,” Wootan said.
The reclassification of accessory foods harks back to the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration sought to reclassify ketchup, a basic condiment, as a vegetable as part of the federal school lunch program. Or, more recently, when Congress decided that an eighth of a cup of tomato paste had the same nutritional value as a half cup of vegetables.
What’s more, under the proposed rules, food varieties have been subdivided so that stores can more easily qualify as a SNAP retailer. For example, under Obama-era rules, cow’s milk was split into three varieties (perishable, shelf-stable and powdered), but under the new proposed rules, perishable milk is now further divided into full-fat and reduced-fat, meaning that if a store carries both kinds of milk it will now have two of the seven varieties required in the staple dairy category.
The real beneficiaries of the new rules, Wootan said, are not food stamp recipients but convenience stores, dollar stores, liquor shops and other retail outlets that could start accepting SNAP benefits. The National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS) had lobbied for the changes, she added.
Anna Ready, director of government relations at NACS, provided a statement to The Washington Post about the proposed changes.
“We are pleased to see that FNS heeded the calls of Congress to rewrite their definition of ‘variety’ in a way that will provide more flexibility for the more than 119,000 convenience stores in the program who provide needed access to food in areas where there is not a large store nearby or during nontraditional hours when most of those stores are closed.”
According to USDA statistics, there were 119,248 convenience stores authorized to redeem SNAP benefits in fiscal year 2017. By contrast, during the same period, there were about 37,500 authorized supermarkets and superstores such as Walmart and Target. Yet when it came to purchasing food, participants redeemed 82 percent of their SNAP benefits at supermarkets and super stores. Only 5.5 percent of the benefits were redeemed at convenience stores.
During a separate phone call, NACS’s Ready singled out these USDA statistics as evidence that SNAP participants don’t use convenience stores as their primary grocery destinations but more as supplements, just like Americans who don’t receive federal assistance. Convenience stores have extended hours — sometimes 24 hours a day — compared with large retailers and supermarkets, Ready said. These corner stores, then, can be a backup option for bread, milk, eggs and other necessities when low-income families don’t have time to travel to a major supermarket in other neighborhoods, she said.
“If you make it too costly for convenience stores to stay in the program,” Ready added, “you’re ultimately pushing out and closing off key access points for SNAP families.”
A final rule will be issued sometime after Tuesday, when the comments period closes.
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