Rule would require more healthy choices for food stamp users
Opponents worry regulation would hurt smaller stores
February 28, 2016 12:00 AM
James Perry, owner of Perry’s Honeydripper on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, stocks fresh vegetables Friday along with takeout prepared food and groceries.
By Kate Giammarise / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
At the tiny Schwartz Supermarket in the Marshall-Shadeland neighborhood in Pittsburgh’s North Side, market owner Abdul Rahim does a brisk business, greeting some customers by name as he sells chips, candy and cigarettes.
Under a proposed new federal rule, stores like his that accept food stamp cards would be required to stock far more healthy food choices for customers than they do currently.
“It’s a good idea, that way people would be able to buy it,” Mr. Rahim said, pointing to a bunch of bananas for sale on the counter as evidence his store has some healthy choices.
The proposal would require retailers to offer “seven varieties of qualifying foods in four staple food groups for sale on a continuous basis, along with 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.” Stores would have to stock at least six units within each variety, meaning they would need to carry at least 168 of these required food items per store.
Currently, stores can accept food stamps with a bare minimum stock of 12 items total in the staple food categories.
“USDA is committed to expanding access for SNAP participants to the types of foods that are important to a healthy diet,” said U.S. Department of Agriculture Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumer Services Kevin Concannon in a statement this month announcing the planned rule change. “This proposed rule ensures that retailers who accept SNAP benefits offer a variety of products to support healthy choices for those participating in the program,” he said, referring to the food stamp program by its formal name, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
The proposal would not regulate what foods recipients are permitted to purchase.
At the Perry Market in the Perry South neighborhood, store owner Ahmed Saeed also said he thinks requiring more healthy foods at SNAP retailers is a generally good idea, though his shelves are largely dominated by sugary drinks and candy.
“Really we don’t try [to sell healthy foods], but maybe we should,” he said.
At Perry’s Honeydripper, a small market on Frankstown Avenue in Homewood, the cooler in the front of the store is filled with grapes, pears, oranges, cabbage and green peppers.
People in Homewood “shouldn’t have to get on a bus” to buy produce, said James Perry, the store’s owner. His market, decorated with photos of his 11 children, also sells staples such as milk, butter, yogurt, potatoes, bread, cereal and beans.
“We try to get a bit of everything,” Mr. Perry explained.
Several advocacy groups declined to comment on the proposal, saying it was too new and they are still studying it.
In enacting any new regulations, the Department of Agriculture will have to balance trying to increase the amount of healthy food choices available without having the rules be so burdensome that they make fewer retailers participate, and ultimately result in less access for food stamp users.
The department “is working to ensure that access to food retailers is not hindered for SNAP participants as a result of this rule,” the agency said.
Other programs already exist to encourage food stamp shoppers to buy produce, such as the farmers market “food bucks” program that gives SNAP users a $2 voucher for every $5 worth of tokens they get at 15 area farmers markets.
That program distributed about $16,000 worth of vouchers last year in the Pittsburgh area.
“That shows the demand really is there,” said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, an anti-hunger group.
More than 260,000 retailers nationwide are currently authorized to redeem SNAP benefits, according to the agriculture department.
Many small corner stores have thin profit margins, which can make it harder to invest in stocking new items that might not sell, said John Weidman, deputy executive director of The Food Trust in Philadelphia. Mr. Weidman’s organization helps corner stores carry healthier choices with assistance such as helping them learn how to sell fresh produce when perishable foods might not be part of their business model, or with marketing assistance.
The Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association, the trade association for convenience stores, supermarkets and independent grocers, is still examining the proposal and gathering feedback from members, said Alex Baloga, the group’s vice president of external relations.
“We have concerns about the potential impact on small retailers,” he said.
The Department of Agriculture is accepting public comments about the proposal until April 18.
Kate Giammarise: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-3909 or on Twitter @KateGiammarise.
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