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USDA seeks input on food stamp program

U.S. Department of Agriculture officials visited Chicago on Wednesday as part of their national listening tour. They’re considering policy changes for retailers in the food stamp program that are skimping on healthy food choices.

The food stamp program is formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Advocates have long complained about lack of access to healthy food in corner and convenience stores - sometimes the only shopping options in areas designated as food deserts.

“I think it’s very likely that there are going to be some changes. We are very, very interested in hearing from the advocacy community particularly. But also from retailers as to how they can get these healthier options in these stores,  not the constant ‘no people won’t buy them.’ But where it’s been successful, tell us how you’ve done it so we can have that as part of the model that we can utilize as we develop the new rules,” said Audrey Rowe, administrator for Food and Nutrition Services for USDA.

Rowe said ideally changes would be implemented this time next year.

USDA is asking a number of questions about the impact of SNAP. They include whether certain retailers should be excluded, possible tweaks to staple food groups and figuring out how stores can  improve access to food choices.

There’s long been criticism that the food stamp program has low standards, and those low standards aren’t enforced. It’s easy to see how this routinely fails in Chicago.

In 2010, a WBEZ investigation found that liquor stores, gas stations and dollar stores comprise 30 percent of the food stamp providers in Chicago. Often, these places offer more junk food than fresh food, but the federal government still gives these stores the green light to accept food stamps.

“Saturday I was driving down along the South Side and I was looking at the stores and I was trying to identify those that had Link [the name of Illinois’ food stamp card] in their window and wondered myself how compliant they are,” Rowe said. “Many stores when they want to apply are very compliant.”

Rowe said USDA has expanded its compliance division to so that it can investigate more often.  

Natalie Moore is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her @natalieymoore.

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