A proposal from the USDA is causing controversy
When it comes to stores for those receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits, the logic would seem to be: the more the merrier. The USDA has proposed some new rules, though, that would require smaller stores to stock a much larger selection of staple foods such as meat, dairy, produce, and breads. “At least three varieties of items in each of four staple food categories, to a mandatory minimum of seven varieties,” their summary says.
A USDA spokesperson told Civil Eats she believes it will force SNAP participants to make better food choices, because they’d only be able to use their benefits at stores with those healthier options. It’s a complicated proposition, though. Opponents say these rules will reduce food options in areas where they are already limited. This idea works fine for areas where smaller shops will be able to comply, or where there are ample grocery store options. But there are many places in the U.S. where the ability to find fresh food is so minimal that people are opening up unstaffed and mobile grocery stores in an attempt to provide greater access.
This access is the most important factor in healthy eating, according to Dr. Wendy Slusser, who leads the Healthy Campus Initiative at UCLA and is an expert on preventing and managing childhood obesity. She tells me that access and availability are the most influential ways of improving fruit and vegetable intake for children. “It's a double-edged sword. If you decrease access to food—to those stores—then children and families might not have access,” she says.
Dr. Wendi Gosliner of the University of California Nutrition Policy Institute sees upsides to the proposed changes. “I think it's a good idea for the USDA to look at store requirements to try to help to structure healthier food purchases with SNAP benefits, so I support that they're trying to do that. Right now you can be a SNAP retailer, and you don't have to sell any fresh fruits or vegetables,” she says. Gosliner also notes that the USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women Infants and Children (WIC) program instituted similar changes recently, with positive effects.
On the negative end, Gosliner notes the USDA needs to provide support, technical assistance, and perhaps grants to stores in underserved areas so that they can make this transition—otherwise it’s a risky move. “The main thing is that you don't want to reduce food access, you want to improve food access and provide people access to better food,” she says.
The Congressional Black Caucus has come out strong against the proposed change, saying “it appears intended to dramatically reduce choices available to our constituents who rely on the SNAP program.” Dr. Slusser agrees that it isn’t a real solution: “I think it doesn't really get to the root of what they're trying to do, which is to have SNAP be redirected to healthier items.”