October 3, 2013

Reconsidering Retail Store Eligibility in SNAP: The Food and Nutrition Service is All Ears

Mary Kennelly

Mary Kennelly

MPH Candidate

Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health

RS1852_cornerstoreA few relatively simple changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) could profoundly improve the availability of nutritious food in communities across the country.

Food comes from stores. Stores are the backbone of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Previously known as the food stamp program, SNAP helped 44.7 million people buy food in 2011. It does this through a network of more than 246,000 retailers that redeemed $74 billion in SNAP benefits in FY2012. Participating stores include the spectrum of food retailers—from big-box superstores all the way down to corner stores and convenience stores. Stores apply for the privilege of redeeming SNAP benefits. In order to join SNAP, the stores must sell a variety of food items, but these standards are set so low that a store could join SNAP and sell just twelve food items.

While on campus at JHSPH, I got to thinking that SNAP retailers, especially small stores, operate in many communities that have low access to affordable, healthy foods. How could SNAP leverage this existing network of stores to increase access to more nutritious foods? After all, SNAP exists to improve the nutrition of low-income households.

Healthier Staple Food Standard. One suggestion from food policy advocates was to strengthen store standards. Stores profit by redeeming SNAP benefits, so could these stores offer SNAP clients more nutritious options? For my capstone, I completed a policy analysis to answer this question.

Borrowing from SNAP’s sister program WIC, I proposed the Healthier Staple Food Standard to raise the bar for retailer participation in SNAP. The Healthier Staple Food Standard does this by making three changes to the existing law. First, it separates fruits and vegetables into two distinct categories resulting in the creation of five staple food groups—the three existing groups: meat, poultry, and fish; bread or cereal; and dairy products; plus the newly independent fruit group and the vegetable group. Second, it requires at least two fresh options in both the fruit group and the vegetable group, along with perishable items in at least two other staple food groups. Finally, it amends the bread or cereal group and dairy products group to give more Americans access to healthier alternatives like whole wheat bread and low-fat or non-fat milk.

Adoption of the Healthier Staple Food Standard has the potential to ensure that every time a consumer enters a SNAP store, a healthier choice is available. It would reduce geographic barriers that separate many low-income individuals from healthier food options. Evidence from WIC has shown that it is feasible for small stores to implement stronger stocking requirements. Although implementing the Healthier Staple Food Standard is not without risks, primarily that stores will fail to cope with the additional cost of stocking healthier items, I argue that the potential gains outweigh the risks. On balance, enhanced store eligibility standards like the Healthier Staple Food Standard can and should play a critical role in improving our nation’s food environment.

The Food and Nutrition Service is listening. This fall, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) announced a Request for Information on enhancing retail store eligibility standards in SNAP. In addition to inviting written input, the FNS hosted five listening sessions around the country from late August to mid-September.

Luckily, FNS came to my home town, Chicago. One humid evening, I had the chance so many academics and advocates seek—the chance to share your research with decision makers. At the listening session, members of the public each took a turn sharing aspirations for SNAP stores with FNS officials. Each four-minute comment added to the record that FNS officials will use to make their decision. Later, I supplemented these remarks with written testimony.

In Baltimore, CLF Lerner Fellow Karina Christiansen took the mic at the Mid-Atlantic listening session to voice her support for the Healthier Staple Food Standard, in particular its emphasis on access to fresh fruits and fresh vegetables.

Do you have suggestions or concerns about SNAP stores? It’s not too late to speak up. Make your voice heard by submitting a written comment online by October 21, 2013.

Learn more about Healthier Staple Food Standard. Click here for a policy brief on the Healthier Staple Food Standard, or to read the complete article: Mary E. Kennelly, Roni Neff, & Lainie Rutkow, Strengthening Vendor Standards in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Are Healthier Foods Within Reach?, 16 J. Health Care L. & Pol’y 141 (2013).

Mary’s capstone was supervised by CLF’s Roni Neff, and the idea for the project was partly derived from CLF’s Research Ideas for Students. Mary was able not only to publish her capstone paper (with coauthors Lainie Rutkow, her academic advisor, and Roni Neff), but she also received an MPH Capstone Award for Outstanding Achievement from the Bloomberg School and the “Student Abstract Award” from the American Public Health Association’s Food and Nutrition Section.

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