USDA considering rules to require food stamp retailers to carry healthier options

Federal officials are continuing to consider a proposal that would require stores that accept food stamp cards be required to stock far more healthy food choices for customers than they do currently. The proposal would likely not have an effect on large retailers, but could impact smaller neighborhood stores and require them to carry more items.

The proposal would require stores to sell “seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups” as well as “perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups ... dairy products; breads and cereals; meats, poultry and fish; and fruits and vegetables.”

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture data, most food stamp program participants shop at supermarkets; in fiscal year 2015, 82 percent of all benefits were spent in what the USDA categorized as supermarkets and superstores.

The agency estimates about 90 percent of the small retailers who participate in the program would need to add inventory to meet the proposed new rule. On average, a smaller store would need to add about 54 more items, according to a USDA estimate.

Advocates for food stamp customers say they do believe federal standards should require retailers to provide a decent amount of healthy food choices. On the other hand, they don’t want to see a small retailer in a food desert who is their community’s only or nearly only source of food driven out of the program by too-restrictive rules, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a South Side-based group that advocates for food stamp users and works with convenience stores to increase access to fresh produce in low-income areas.

Particularly of concern is the proposal that would limit the percentage of total sales of hot prepared foods, which could have the potential to harm a small grocery combined with a catering business, Mr. Regal said.

The proposal is opposed by the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, which represents convenience stores, independent grocers and supermarkets.

“The rule will exacerbate already existing food deserts,” the organization stated in comments it submitted to the USDA earlier this year. “Many rural or urban communities are not fortunate to have large-format stores in their communities. For example, in the remote Pennsylvania town of Renovo, there is one small, independently-owned grocery store in town. The only other SNAP retailers within a 20-mile radius are convenience stores, general stores, and a farmer’s market that is open on a very limited basis. If these small format stores were unable to meet these new standards due to their limited customer base, SNAP participants may be forced to drive upwards of an hour to find their nearest large-format grocery store. Urban communities face a different problem. Philadelphia residents without access to a car make use of corner groceries, bodegas, and other local retailers within walking distance. While larger stores may be within a few miles, the impracticality of carrying bags of food, taking them on the city bus, or paying for a taxi makes shopping there difficult,” the organization’s letter stated.

USDA Food Nutrition and Consumer Services Deputy Under Secretary Katie Wilson said in an interview last week the agency is in the process of reviewing public comments that were submitted earlier this year.

She said the agency could allow some flexibility in areas with “significantly limited access to food.” 

“Comments were received on this subject. And definitely all comments are being considered very seriously,” she said.

The rule is expected to be finalized by the end of the year, according to USDA officials.

Kate Giammarise: or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.


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