New federal regulations intended to promote healthy eating could make it harder to use food stamps at convenience stores – a change that opponents say will leave disadvantaged people with fewer places to buy groceries.
The standards proposed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture would require retailers that accept food stamps to stock more and fresher varieties of food. But many convenience stores won’t be able to meet the requirements and will be forced from the the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, or food stamps, critics say.
So, on the one hand:
Why should the government be able to tell poor people where they can shop and what foods they can buy?
On the other hand:
Why shoudn't the goverment be able to tell people where they can shop and what foods they can buy using money supplied by us taxpayers?
This is the dilemma. Yes, we all hate the Obama administration's obesity-obsessed Nutrition Nanny State that won't even let schools hold bake sales to fund the marching band without conforming to strict limits.
But this situation is more problematic:
USDA drafted its proposal to codify language in the 2014 Farm Bill that required stores that accept SNAP to offer seven varieties of food items in each of four staple food categories. Those categories are meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy.
The law states stores must include at least one perishable item in three of those categories. This more than doubles the varieties of foods stores will have to stock to 28, a change convenience store owners say they do not oppose.
Their problem, they say, is with how the USDA interpreted the law.
In particular, convenience store owners object to a new definition of what constitutes a staple food. Under the USDA’s proposal, products with more than two ingredients, such as soups or frozen dinners, no longer count.
Another major concern with USDA’s proposal is the requirement that six items from each of the seven food varieties must be displayed on a shelf at all times.
Ninety percent of small stores currently authorized to accept food stamps – about 175,000 stores nationwide – would need to add inventory items to meet the new requirements, according to USDA.
In other words, the government wants people on food stamps to use the stamps at actual grocery stores where maybe looking at the tempting piles of fresh shiny apples might inspire them to buy one of those apples instead of the package of Ho Hos that they came into the store to buy.
Now, many convenience stores are small family-owned businesses–although others are part of big chains like 7-Eleven. And, as the USDA has pointed out:
Some of these retailers operate primarily as restaurants, not retail food stores. Nothing in current regulations specifically prohibits items sold for SNAP benefits that are cold at the point-of-sale from being heated or cooked in the store after purchase. Further, current rules allow foods to be classified as staple or non-staple by their first ingredient; therefore some pizza restaurants, for example, have been deemed eligible with pizza as the qualifying staple food based on the primary ingredient (bread). After selling a cold pizza to SNAP customers, these firms subsequently heat the pizza and then have ultimately sold hot food from their pizza-restaurant location.
Since the point of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is to enable the poor to purchase food to cook at home, not to enable the poor to order takeout pizza, there does seem to a point in tightening the rules. The SNAP program is supposed to be an anti-hunger program, not a let's-eat-out-tonight program. Convenience stores sell convenience, so just for starters, even a wholesome quart of milk costs more at the corner store than it does at the Safeway. Do we want our tax dollars to be spent on convenience–or just plain food?
So, alas, the problem isn't convenience stores and their inadequate apple supplies. It's food stamps. Right now some 46.5 million people feed on SNAP benefits, one out of every seven Americans. That's more than the 38.5 million Americans deemed to be living in poverty by even the most generous standards. Not surprisingly, food stamps are misused in all kinds of ways,as ingenious "beneficiaries' figure out how to turn them into cash.
So, I feel sort of sorry for mom-and-pop bodega owners who might not be able to participate much longer in the food-stamp racket–and even sorrier for genuinely impoverished moms who might have to shop elsewhere for that gallon of milk for the kids. And of course I can't stand the health fanatics at the Obama USDA.
But isn't the real solution for Congress to get the SNAP program under control so that it actually does what it's supposed to do?