For roughly 40 million Americans, SNAP benefits are a lifeline.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, delivers about $60 billion in aid each year. And retailers that accept SNAP benefits are required to stock a variety of staple foods — including a minimum number of fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and grain options.
Now, there's a controversy brewing over which foods count as staples. Should beef jerky, spray cheese and queso dip count? The Trump administration has proposed a rule that would allow retailers to include these items.
"The Trump administration would weaken what stores would have to offer," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a consumer advocacy group. She says this could result in fewer healthy options in convenience and corner stores where SNAP recipients spend about $3 billion in benefits each year.
A rule written during the Obama administration would require retailers to stock at least seven different products in each of four key food categories — fruits and vegetables, meat, dairy and grains.
Under the change proposed by the Trump administration, retailers could stock dried meats — such as beef jerky — and shelf-stable, processed cheese products to help them meet their meat and dairy requirements. And this may offset the need to offer as many fresh meat and dairy products. Wootan's complaint about this policy: "Very few families would serve up a Slim Jim as the main course in a meal," she says. It's a snack.
As Wootan and I tour a convenience store in Washington, D.C., she points to aisles filled with snack food. "Almost all of this is chips, snack cakes, candy," she says.
She says SNAP benefits are intended to provide people with foods they can cook at home. And it would be helpful if convenience stores made it possible for families to do "a real shop for foods they can prepare into meals," Wootan says — more like a grocery store.
Studies have shown that a lack of easy access to healthy foods — whether it's due to living in an urban "food desert" or in a rural area with no supermarket — is one contributor to poor nutrition and obesity.
And it's also true that in some areas, convenience stores fill a gap. "We offer the majority of healthy foods," says Robert Forsyth, who operates the MotoMart chain of convenience stores across six Midwestern states, including Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio. His family has been in the business for decades.
He says there was a time when you would only see cigarettes and candy bars at gas station stores. "We've been in the business so long, we remember before convenience stores were really a thing," Forsyth says.
Now, people come in "to buy orange juice and milk and — in our stores — apples, oranges, bananas," he says. He also points to an array of nuts, whole-grain breads and yogurts that his stores stock. "Lots of good, healthy products," he says.
Forsyth supports the Trump administration's proposed rule changes. In a letter to the USDA, he asked the agency to give retailers even more flexibility in determining which foods meet the requirements. He also defends products such as beef jerky — which he says are popular, nutritious and affordable.
"Affordability is a huge aspect," Forsyth says. He says he can only stay in business if he sells items that people want to buy. "It doesn't do me any good to sell almond milk and goat cheese," because he says his customers don't want them.
"You've got to meet SNAP recipients where they are," Forsyth says. And he doesn't like the idea of beef jerky or processed cheese being singled out. "I think it's an elitist attitude." He says the rules written during the Obama administration would have hurt his business. "The situation is the law would have squeezed out convenience store operators" from being able to accept SNAP benefits.
He agrees that people should be taught more about good nutrition. "We need to educate people on their choices and we need to make sure they have a variety of healthy choices to choose from," Forsyth says. But the rules shouldn't be so strict that they undermine his business. He says if convenience stores were squeezed out of some of the small towns where he operates, such as Plover, Wis., and Galion, Ohio, some of his customers who live miles from a major supermarket and don't have easy access to transportation would be left with fewer food-shopping options.
The public comment period on this proposed rule ends Tuesday.