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Is Trump Right to Let Gas Stations Offer SNAP and to Classify Cheese Spray as a Staple?

Critics of the USDA's new stocking standards say their opposition is about incentivizing retailers, not about penalizing people for what's in their grocery cart.
Richmond Emergency Food Bank volunteer Abdul Olorode packs boxes with food to be handed out to needy people on November 1st, 2013, in Richmond, California.

Richmond Emergency Food Bank volunteer Abdul Olorode packs boxes with food to be handed out to needy people on November 1st, 2013, in Richmond, California.

Under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, low-income Americans receive an average of $150 on their electronic benefit transfer card every month to buy groceries. The program has been proven to reduce food insecurity for the roughly 40 million people who participate. But exactly what type of food these participants are receiving has long been a point of contention.

Many public-health experts believe SNAP should institute standards that promote nutrition, even if these regulations don't keep the wealthier part of the population from buying processed foods. Others note that some of these policies also run the risk of stigmatizing the poor for their nutritional choices. In the past, this debate has played out through bans on soda and candy. Under the Trump administration's recent rollbacks of SNAP stocking standards, it comes down to spray cheese.

Currently, SNAP retailers are required to stock certain varieties of foods across four staple categories: Fruits or vegetables; meat, poultry, or fish; dairy products; and breads or cereals. Efforts to strengthen these standards under President Barack Obama—requiring a certain amount of whole grain staples in the bread category, for example—died in Congress. Now the Trump administration is rolling back what few standards the program has in place. A new rule from the United States Department of Agriculture, which goes into effect after the comment period ends on Thursday, would make it easier for gas stations and convenience stores to accept SNAP and allows for more snack foods to qualify as staples—possibly reducing participants' access to fresh produce and other nutritious foods in the process.

Under the proposal, beef jerky would count as a staple in the meat category, canned spray cheese would be considered a dairy staple, and pimento stuffed olives would qualify as vegetables. These are just a few of the new varieties of staples highlighted by the USDA agency that oversees SNAP, but they're the ones that have drawn the most ire and media coverage in the months since the rule was first posted.

"In the [SNAP] statute, a retailer by definition has to be a store that provides foods that people can make or eat at home," says Julia McCarthy, senior policy associate for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy non-profit. "It's really hard to imagine people buying canned cheese spray or beef jerky that they can make and serve to their family as a weekly meal."

Despite this, advocates and experts say they want to avoid demonizing low-income people for how they eat. "Nobody wants to blame SNAP participants," says University of Connecticut agriculture economist Tatiana Andreyeva, whose research has suggested SNAP users' diets are not consistent with the federal government's dietary guidelines (nor are most Americans). "This is what we see in the data, but we don't want to suggest this is their fault."

Andreyeva cautions that studies attempting to assess SNAP participants' nutrition or compare their diets to non-SNAP-eligible Americans have been fraught with errors: In addition to selection bias and the fact that SNAP's food options don't directly influence nutritions outcomes, there are just too many other factors beyond food choice that contribute to health disparities for low-income people.

And yet, as more states have moved toward banning SNAP participants from buying soda, rhetoric around SNAP participants' "unhealthiness" has resurfaced. Some experts blame media coverage of the issue, such as the 2017 New York Times story that ran under the headline, "In the Shopping Cart of a Food Stamp Household: Lots of Soda"—even though a 2016 USDA study found differences in food purchases, including soda, between SNAP and non-SNAP shoppers were "relatively limited."

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest and other groups that weighed in on the rule, stocking standards are about encouraging retailers to provide healthier options, not about penalizing people for what's in their grocery cart. Establishing stocking standards is a strategy that's already worked for the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children, Andreyeva notes. Studies show the program's 2009 regulation—coupled with subsidies to families to buy more produce and whole grains—not only incentivized WIC stores to stock these items, but also encouraged people to buy them.

These policies are necessary, advocates say, because convenience stores won't change how they stock their shelves alone. Healthy staples like fruit and vegetables are perishable—and if SNAP participants don't buy them, retailers lose out. On top of that, distributors have little incentive to make deliveries to a convenience store or gas station, which might only order a few bunches of bananas.

"You're running a risk when you buy fresh produce, and you put it on your shelves, and you're in a type of store where people don't really come to do their regular shopping and buy a lot of produce," says Marlene Schwartz, professor and director of the Rudd Center for Obesity & Food Policy at the University of Connecticut. "If you want people to be able to go into those convenience stores and find something that looks like 'real food,' to feed their family, make a dinner, or give to their child for a meal, you kind of have to force their hand."

Outside of the success of WIC's voucher program, some local stocking ordinances have encountered problems with providing healthier options. In Minneapolis, where officials required small stores to stock a variety of healthy foods, retailers have complained that no one's buying the produce at their convenience stores, resulting in more food waste, the Star Tribune reports.

McCarthy says she also fears that the new stores allowed to accept SNAP under the USDA's rule will not provide healthy options—or, worse, the smaller grocery stores that do might be pushed out of the market.

Supporters of Trump's rule change argue: Isn't a gas station offering SNAP better than nothing? "I think it's important for neighborhoods to have more than one place that will serve those with SNAP benefits," wrote a former retail worker in the federal register, after the rule first went up in April.

However, many SNAP recipients already have grocery store options: The majority of SNAP dollars go to grocery stores, where healthy options are readily available—even if recipients have to travel outside their neighborhood in order to access them. "There's a stereotype that everybody who's on SNAP is going to some convenience store, 7-Eleven or something, and that's the only option that they have for food," Schwartz says. "The research doesn't really support that when you look at the big picture."

But for the estimated 12 million low-income people who don't have easy access to a grocery store—who live in what's considered a "food desert" by the USDA and must travel more than a mile for groceries—bringing SNAP to more convenience stores might improve food access. Schwartz says, however, that if the government really wanted to help expand options for this group, it should devote more resources to the rollout of SNAP's new pilot program, which lets people order fresh produce and other groceries with their EBT card from online retailers like Amazon.

Meanwhile, one group will most certainly benefit: the owners of convenience stores. "I feel like this most recent effort, what they call 'increasing flexibility'—which is kind of a code word in this administration for 'weaken'—is making it easier on the stores," Schwartz says. "It's not designed to help the people using SNAP."