USDA to crack down on convenience stores that accept food stamps

March 20, 2014

(WBEZ/Natalie Moore)
An example of a gas station that accepts food stamps.

The recently enacted federal farm bill has a new provision requiring that convenience stores sell healthier food.

It requires “depth of stock” on the shelves of convenience stores that are in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, commonly known as food stamps.

Depth of stock means more varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains and meats.

“Our goal is really primarily to make sure SNAP households or low-income households or people with limited income have access to healthy foods,” said Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services for the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Concannon said 82 percent of SNAP benefits are redeemed at supermarkets or big-box stores. The challenges are the small stores often in low-income neighborhoods. Last year USDA held hearings around the nation about policy changes at convenience stores.

Food access is a big issue in Chicago food deserts. Gas stations, liquor stores, dollar stores and corner stores are the most common grocers. They accept food stamps, but these retailers are typically repositories for junk food.  And a common complaint has been that the USDA food stamp standards are too low and those low standards aren’t enforced.

“It’s too minimal, frankly,” Concannon said.

The USDA has to iron out the regulations but officials want the new rules to be in place by the end of the year. Once they are released, there will be a comment period before the changes take effect.

Concannon said USDA won’t object if stores drop out of the program once the stricter regulations are in place. But food stamps are a boon for retailers. Across the country SNAP provides $80 billion in food stamp benefits. In Chicago, researcher Mari Gallagher said the Roseland community, a food desert, has 87 stores that take food stamps, earning on average $5,000 a week.

Only two of those Roseland stores are “mainstream,” which means they stock enough options to support a healthy diet on a regular basis. The rest were “fringe” stores that had limited food choices and specialized in high-fat and high-salt junk food.

Gallagher said the federal changes are necessary.

“I’m super excited about how fringe stores could improve and serve the community in the future and help their own bottom line,” Gallagher said. “Being in SNAP is not an inherent right. It’s a privilege they need to learn.”

But she wants the USDA to put in safeguards for enforcement.

“People might not be worried about tougher rules because who’s going to enforce them?” Gallagher suggests that the federal government partner with local public health authorities to ensure compliance.

Shamar Hemphill, an organizer with Inner-City Muslim Action Network, agrees about accountability. IMAN’s approach to help eliminate food deserts is to not wait for a big-box store to come, but to improve existing corner stores where many people shop.

Muslim Run is the name of the campaign and it has expanded to four stores. Organizers have had success in getting fresh produce not only stocked but sold.

Hemphill said he looks forward to the new federal regulations but change “won’t happen unless the residents push and demand that these stores operate and carry these staple foods.”

Frank Hafeez manages Halsted Grocery on 71st Street. The liquor-convenience store in Englewood has a tray of lemons, oranges, grapes and wilted green bell peppers. Boxes of potatoes and onions are stacked by the door.

“I would like to know more,” Hafeez said of the federal regulations. “We carry what customers request.”

Meanwhile, the Illinois Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights met about Chicago food deserts at Kennedy-King College on Thursday. The committee will make recommendations on how to eradicate food deserts in the next couple of months.

is a WBEZ reporter. nmoore@wbez.org 

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