Stores in food-stamp program will have to carry wider variety of healthy foods

In a step to mollify Capitol Hill, the USDA said that stores participating in the food-stamp program will have to stock a wider and deeper variety of healthy foods than they do now — but only half as many as it originally proposed. And USDA relented for the most part on a provision that would have barred retailers that sell a lot of hot food.

Lawmakers said USDA’s initial proposal, last Feb. 17, for retailers to offer at least 168 items would create logistical headaches for small outlets, such as convenience stores, with limited shelf space, and that thousands of retailers would be disqualified by a provision to bar stores that collect more than 15 percent of food sales from items that are cooked or heated for customers before or immediately after purchase. In some neighborhoods or small towns, convenience stores are the only option, said lawmakers, who threatened to derail the rule altogether.

In its final rule, the USDA said retailers will have to stock at least 84 items, calculated from four categories of staple foods, seven varieties in each category and three items of each variety. Retailers can redeem food stamps if less than 50 percent of their business’ total gross sales foods are heated or cooked on-site by the retailer. “This means that most ‘you buy, we fry”-type restaurants cannot participate,” said USDA.

The stocking rule will take effect in a year and the hot-food rule, which is somewhat stronger than the current rule, takes effect in four months.

“This final rule balances the need to improve the healthy staple foods available for purchase at participating stores, while maintaining food access for SNAP recipients in under-served rural and urban areas,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He said USDA “received many helpful comments” that led to revisions from the original version.

House Agriculture chairman Michael Conaway of Texas said, “It appears that USDA responded to concerns with the proposed rule … improving access to healthy food is an important goal but those improvements should not unduly burden certain types of retailers.”

At present, stores are required to stock 12 items to qualify as a food-stamp store, based on the four food categories, with one item apiece of three varieties within each category. The four staple-food categories are fruits or vegetables; dairy products; meat, poultry or fish; and breads or cereals. As an example, USDA said apples, carrots and pears are considered three varieties of produce.

The food-stamp-retailer rule has a wide impact. Roughly one in seven Americans receives food stamps, which help poor people buy food to make meals at home.

Nearly 259,000 retailers were authorized to redeem food stamps in 2015, with supermarkets and superstores accounting for 82 percent of sales, or $57 billion. Convenience stores were 42 percent of food-stamp retailers and handled 5 percent of sales.

For the USDA page on the food-stamp-retailer rule, including a link to the final rule, click here.