by Terrie Ellerbee/editor-Midwest and Southwest
The Farm Bill passed the U.S. Senate yesterday and the House of Representatives today and is on its way to President Donald Trump’s desk for his signature. Thanks to the work of the National Grocers Association (NGA) and its membership, the final bill includes provisions that are beneficial to independent grocers and excludes detrimental measures such as imposing fees on retailers for accepting SNAP benefits.
“On behalf of the independent grocers across the nation, we applaud the final passage of the Farm Bill and appreciate the work of the conference committee on producing a bill that strengthens the public-private partnership between the federal government and supermarket operators in the SNAP program,” said NGA President and CEO Peter Larkin. “This legislation addresses important issues for independent grocers, including the protection against harmful processing fees and the increased investment in the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) program. We were especially pleased to see the Farm Bill contain NGA offered language that would direct significantly more FINI funding to independent supermarkets. It’s been a long road to get here, but NGA and its members were engaged with Congress every step of the way to achieve our shared goals.”
Christopher Jones, VP of government relations and counsel for the NGA, talked to The Shelby Report earlier today about what is—and what is not—in the Farm Bill. He first referenced the “perennial fight” over the government restricting SNAP participants’s food choices and in effect requiring grocers to police purchases.
“That can be very arbitrary where you draw that line,” Jones said. “We think that would be especially difficult for our smaller retailers to figure out what’s in the program, what’s out of the program.”
What NGA pushed for and was successful in getting in the Farm Bill was a continuation and enhancement of the FINI program, also known as Double Up Food Bucks. The program matches each dollar SNAP participants spend on fruits and vegetables, so they get double the produce for the same benefit amount. When it first began in 2014, it was mainly being implemented at farmers markets. Retailers later began offering the program.
“One of our big asks was trying to steer more of the funding into grocery stores because that tends to be the place where SNAP customers shop,” Jones said. “Stores are open longer hours, and you can also determine how much people’s behavior changes after the intervention is introduced. The Farm Bill more than doubles funding for the program and it’s permanent, which is very exciting, and it also steers more of the funding to grocery stores.”
In fact, retailers that are open longer hours and for more days of the year (vs. farmers market) have a leg up on other applicants for the program. If the retailer also has the capability to collect data, that also would give it a better chance of getting the funding.
It goes further by creating a technology and best practices clearinghouse to help independent grocers implement the program.
“A lot of our members are very interested in participating in this program,” Jones said. “Some of them have already had an opportunity to do so and have been successful, but this will get a lot more of our membership, the independents, in the game in terms of the FINI program.”
There were several proposals that would have increased the cost for grocers accepting SNAP benefits. Jones said the NGA had to “play a lot of defense when it came to the idea of fees being imposed on retailers for accepting SNAP benefits.”
A credit card network attempted to repeal a prohibition in place since 1980 that would have imposed interchange fees on SNAP purchases. That was not included in the final bill.
In 2017, a state-contracted EBT processor began charging a one- or two-cents per SNAP transaction processing fee.
“We were fortunate to get language in the Farm Bill that puts a stop to that practice,” Jones said. “There are no new fees associated with accepting SNAP benefits at a retail location.”
In February of 2017, the White House introduced a budget proposal that would have converted 40 percent of the SNAP program benefits to a government-run Harvest Box delivery concept.
“Fortunately, that was met with resistance from the Hill and Congress declined to put any money into that idea or even test it out in a pilot project capacity, so we dodged that bullet as well,” Jones said.
One of the biggest sticking points in negotiations was stricter work requirements for SNAP beneficiaries that were included in the House’s version of the Farm Bill. While NGA stays out of the debate over eligibility, Jones said it is important to note that those work requirements are not included in the final bill. The Farm Bill instead increases funding by about $13 million annually for employment and training programs designed to help people get into the workforce and off of assistance.
The Farm Bill also added greater accountability for the waiver process. Jones said that now a state can waive work requirements just by sending a request to the USDA. The Farm Bill stipulates that a waiver application must be signed off on by the governor of the state.
Another success came in the form of speeding up the acceptance of SNAP benefits through online transactions. About 20 retailers, including some NGA members, now participate in a pilot program. Jones said technical problems and reporting issues have held up progress on the effort.
“The Farm Bill tries to speed up the process by eliminating some of those reporting requirements that have been problematic,” he said. “Also, instead of there being a report to Congress at the end of the pilot project, it would require nationwide implementation of the SNAP online pilot program.”
In addition, there is a proposal for a demonstration project on mobile SNAP EBT technology, Jones said. Up to five states will host retailers on a voluntary basis who can accept SNAP benefits through mobile technology.
“The purpose of that is to integrate incentives, like FINI. You also could add digital coupons,” Jones said. “It is trying to bring the SNAP EBT program into step with modern technologies. We think that’s a step in the right direction as well.”
There was no provision regarding the publication of store-level SNAP data.
“Despite these positive inclusions in the Farm Bill, a top priority to protect store-level SNAP sales data was not included in the Farm Bill,” Larkin said. “We will work closely with Congress and industry stakeholders to identify viable solutions to ensure that confidential information that could be used to give competitors an unfair advantage, particularly over many small- and medium-size grocers, is protected from public disclosure.”