U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack on Dec. 8 announced final changes to increase access to healthy food choices for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. The provisions in the rule require SNAP-authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options.
“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 underserved rural and urban areas,” said Vilsack. “We received many helpful comments on the proposed rule and have modified the final rule in important ways to ensure that these dual goals are met. I am confident that this rule will ensure the retailers that participate in SNAP offer a variety of healthy foods for purchase and that SNAP recipients will continue to have access to the stores they need to be able to purchase food.”
The final rule provides updates to SNAP retailer eligibility criteria. Previously, a retailer could be authorized to participate in the program with a minimum inventory of 12 items. Now, the number of required food items is expanded to a minimum of 84. These changes are in keeping with the primary purpose of the program, according to USDA.
USDA says it extended the comment period for the proposed rule to ensure all interested parties had the opportunity to bring their voice to the final rule, and made significant changes to respond to those comments. The final rule announced Thursday incorporates feedback from more than 1,200 comments received and ensures the new standards will balance commenters’ concerns, according to USDA.
In particular, in the final rule multiple-ingredient foods will continue to count toward retailer eligibility. In addition, the existing regulatory requirement that specifies the threshold of hot and cold prepared foods sold that makes a location an ineligible restaurant (rather than an eligible SNAP retailer) is more flexible than in the proposed rule. Now the requirement is nearly the same as the requirement that has been in place for some time with only a modest change to account for foods heated and consumed on site after purchase, USDA says.
Changes to the definition of accessory foods ensure that stores are not able to participate in SNAP by selling primarily snack foods. At the same time, the definition of variety has been expanded to make it easier for stores to meet the new requirements mandated by the Agricultural Act of 2014, and the number of each variety of staple food items retailers must have in stock has been halved as compared to the proposed rule from six to three.
In response to the final rule, Anna Ready, director of government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS), says, “It’s imperative that Americans in need have places where they can buy food. We are encouraged by what appears to be significant progress in the final rule, although we remain concerned that (Food and Nutrition Service, or FNS) is still trying to penalize retailers for sales of items to non-SNAP customers. We are going through the rule in detail to determine how it will impact convenience stores and the SNAP customers they serve.
“NACS is heartened that USDA removed several problematic provisions from the final rule, which would have made it impossible for tens of thousands of retailers to meet its requirement. Those provisions included a ban on multiple-ingredient items (such as vegetable beef stew), and an expanded definition of “accessory foods” that would have knocked out healthy grab-and-go items (such as hummus and pretzel packs) from counting toward a retailer’s stocking requirements. FNS has also changed the provision that retailers stock six of every SNAP item on shelves at all times and now will require three of every item to be on shelves.
“NACS remains concerned, however, that FNS has retained a modified provision tying retailer eligibility to sales of food to customers who don’t use SNAP. NACS is also troubled by the provisions relating to variety which appear, at first glance, to inject substantial complexities into the program.”
Tom Stenzel, president and CEO of the United Fresh Produce Association, issued the following statement on the final rule, “United Fresh Produce Association commends the USDA on its revised final rule to enhance retailer standards in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to increase healthier options for SNAP participants. The new retail standards will increase the variety and amount of fruits and vegetables available to SNAP customers while being sensitive to the concerns of convenience stores and other small food retail businesses. The rule ensures that SNAP retailers offer seven varieties of fruits and vegetables, with three units of each variety, for a total of 21. We believe that this is a win-win for SNAP families and retail stores.
“In reviewing the proposed rule, United Fresh had supported provisions to make more fruits and vegetables available to SNAP recipients, but also encouraged USDA to be sensitive to regulatory burdens place on small retailers. We are working hard to assist convenience and small-footprint retailers in stocking and merchandising more fresh fruits and vegetables. In 2014, United Fresh formed a joint committee with the National Association of Convenience Stores and has worked in partnership with NACS to strengthen fresh and fresh-cut produce distribution supply chains to make it easier for convenience stores to offer a wider variety of high-quality and appealing fresh fruits and vegetables to their customers, including SNAP participants.”
USDA says it has taken many steps in the last several years to strengthen SNAP and increase access to healthy foods. Recently, it sought retailer volunteers for a two-year, nationwide pilot to enable SNAP participants to purchase their groceries online. USDA also provided funding to incentivize participants in SNAP to purchase more healthy fruits and vegetables through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, increased farmers market participation in SNAP to improve access to fresh and nutritious food, and announced a purchase and delivery pilot, which is designed for nonprofits and government entities to improve access to groceries solely for homebound elderly and disabled SNAP participants.
SNAP serves approximately 45 million low-income people. Nearly half of SNAP participants are children, 10 percent are elderly and more than 40 percent of recipients live in households with earnings.