Members of the House Agriculture Committee last week raised concerns with the head of the Department of Agriculture's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), which implements the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as "food stamps"), over a recent proposed rule that would make it virtually impossible for most travel centers and convenience stores to redeem SNAP benefits. Many lawmakers brought up the same concerns that NATSO has expressed, and FNS officials acknowledged that the proposal has flaws and needs to be improved.
NATSO has had three primary concerns with the proposed SNAP rule:
1) It would prohibit retailers from redeeming SNAP benefits if 15 percent or more of their total food sales are for items that are cooked or heated on-site. This strikes at the heart of travel centers' business model, where many convenience stores that redeem SNAP benefits for eligible items are located at the same site as quick-service and/or sit-down restaurants.
2) The proposal dramatically limits the universe of food items that qualify as "staple foods" that SNAP retailers must stock to redeem benefits. What's more, it narrowly defines the term "variety" such that different types of food within a single food category (e.g., ground turkey vs. turkey slices; salami vs. sliced ham) do not qualify as multiple items but rather the same type of item (e.g., turkey, pork, etc.).
At a House Agriculture Committee hearing March 17, lawmakers pressed FNS officials on these very issues, and FNS officials admitted that improvements were necessary. Mike Conaway (R-Texas), the Chairman of the Committee, told the witnesses that it didn't make sense to treat ground beef and sliced beef as the same item, and FNS officials agreed, indicating that FNS will walk back this provision in the final rule to make it easier for NATSO members to continue participating in SNAP.
Reps. Jackie Walarski (R-Ind.) and Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) emphasized that many of their constituents who live in rural areas rely on travel centers and convenience stores to buy food, and that FNS should not preclude those economically disadvantaged residents from buying food at those types of retail outlets. Walarski pressed FNS officials on the "15 percent" provision, asking where that number came from and if FNS officials came up with it out of thin air.
FNS officials said that they did not intend to exclude retail stores that are located on the same premises as other restaurants, and that the final rule will be changed to accommodate this important point. If FNS is true to its word on this point, it would be a major victory for NATSO members that wish to redeem SNAP benefits.
Finally, several members, including Trent Kelly (R-Miss.), who specifically mentioned the important role that the truckstop industry plays in the SNAP program, urged FNS to extend the comment period. FNS officials indicated that they plan on announcing an extension in the near future.
Overall, it was a very positive hearing for NATSO members interested in participating in the SNAP program.
NATSO's summary of the proposed SNAP retailer rule is available here.
NATSO has also prepared a compliance guide
that contains additional background information on current requirements for SNAP retailers to participate in the program.
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