By Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, Union of Concerned Scientists
Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) proposed a new requirement for retailers that redeem federal SNAP (formerly food stamp) benefits: they should carry more nutritious foods in their stores. The goal is a laudable one, to increase access to healthier foods for low-income families. But even though the USDA is still accepting public comments on the rule, the House Appropriations Committee last week voted against public health, passing legislation that would prohibit the USDA from implementing the new rule.
What were the USDA’s proposed changes for SNAP-authorized retailers?
More than 260,000 retailers across the country are authorized to redeem SNAP benefits (you can read more about the program here) and nearly 40 percent of them are small corner stores. The USDA’s proposed rule presented several significant changes for these retailers, including:
- Requiring stores to stock seven varieties of qualifying foods in the four staple food categories (meat, poultry or fish, bread or cereals, fruits or vegetables, and dairy products)
- Requiring stores to carry perishable foods in at least three of the four staple food groups
- Requiring stores to carry at least six units for each of the qualifying foods in their store at all times.
In total, the USDA’s new rule would require SNAP-authorized stores to carry a minimum of 168 required food items at all times. Previously, the USDA required SNAP-authorized stores to stock four varieties of the staple foods with only one unit for each of the qualifying foods.
While UCS has some concerns about the proposed rule, we strongly disagree with the House’s decision to completely eliminate the possibility of improving access to healthy, affordable food options at thousands of stores around the country. Changes included in the proposed rule have the potential to increase the availability of healthy foods for SNAP recipients—but several factors should be taken into consideration.
Ensuring that SNAP-authorized retailers don’t leave the program
Opponents of the rule—the food industry and small business owners—are concerned that authorizes retailers will leave the program because of the burdensome requirements. This is a valid concern. In a recent white paper, “The Triple Bottom Line: How can we use in-store promotions to decrease WIC program costs, maximize store profitability and improve participant satisfaction?” interviews with store owners about another federal food assistance program (WIC) revealed that they had concerns about WIC product guidelines (both approved food items and minimum stocking requirements) changing frequently. This led to store owners being hesitant to renew their WIC vendor licenses due to the fines stores could receive. Additionally, given the high turnover rate of employees, it was difficult for store owners to maintain consistent procedures and limit mistakes.
One way to address these concerns is to offer stores funding for technical assistance, which could help stores market healthier foods to customers—and potentially their profits. Fortunately, recent research shows that there is a demand for healthy food by low-income individuals, but many feel like that cannot afford to buy them.
Technical assistance funding needed for SNAP-authorized retailers
As indicated in the proposed rule, currently authorized retail food stores may have to expand or change their offerings to remain as authorized retailers. In 2015, the UCS report Fixing Food examined a city ordinance in Minneapolis, Minnesota that imposed similar requirements on local retail stores. An assessment of the ordinance by the Minneapolis Health Department found that a majority of the corner stores in Minneapolis failed to meet the healthier food requirements—specifically around fresh produce. Recognizing that corner store owners needed additional support and technical assistance to reach compliance, the health department developed the Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program in 2010.
The Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program aimed to increase inventory and visibility of fresh produce, the quality of fresh produce, store owners’ knowledge about handling and marketing fresh produce, and fresh produce sales in corner stores. In addition to these goals, one-on-one technical assistance was provided to store owners on produce handling and merchandising. This example, we believe, is directly applicable to the changes made in the proposed SNAP rule. In the case of Minneapolis, the voluntary Minneapolis Healthy Corner Store Program exhibited promising early results.
If stores can meet healthy food requirements, what’s the rate of return?
Assuming stores can successfully adhere to the new stocking requirements, the potential health impacts could be tremendous. Our latest report, “The Devastating Consequences of Unequal Food Access: The Role of Race and Income in Diabetes” shows that living near healthy food retailers is associated with lower diabetes rates. Considering that the U.S. spends approximately $176 billion a year on diabetes-related medical costs and $69 billion in reduced worker productivity, we think it might be worth it to offer additional funding to help stores comply with the new requirements.