Convenience and grocery stores will be required to carry a wider variety of healthful foods if they want to continue accepting food stamp dollars because of new federal rules.
But Nebraska consumers may not see much of a change, store operators say, because many food stores here already meet the new rules, which were watered down in a compromise with industry interests.
“For us, it will be easy to meet,” said Butch Gilman, director of operations for Cubby’s, the Omaha-based chain of convenience stores.
While the Cubby’s Bennington gas station store isn’t a supermarket, it does sell fresh meat — including ribeye steaks cut in-house — along with fresh dairy products, fruits and vegetables, breads and cereal — far more variety than needed to meet the law’s requirements.
Also easily meeting the requirements are the chain’s north Omaha supermarket, Phil’s Foodway, and its smaller downtown Omaha Cubby’s grocery store.
That doesn’t mean convenience stores are turning into farmer’s markets. Most of the Bennington store’s lunchtime customers on a freezing weekday were construction workers buying energy drinks, Cheetos, pizza and hot fried chicken.
“Do you want beef or chicken gravy?” a store worker asked a customer.
And the store has more shelf space devoted to both chips and alcohol than it does to fresh produce and dairy combined.
But Cubby’s and other convenience stores have significantly expanded their supply of healthful foods in recent years because of customer demand and because of initiatives like a Douglas County Health Department push to get stores to add healthful options. Cubby’s participates in the program.
Under the new rules, approved by the USDA in December and taking effect this spring:
Stores will have to stock seven varieties of food in each of four food groups (produce, dairy, grains and meats), up from three varieties.
Stores will have to stock three units of each of those seven varieties at a time; for example, having three bananas or three jugs of milk on the shelf at a time. That’s a compromise from the six units originally proposed.
The total number of items required to be on the shelf will increase to 84, from today’s minimum of 12, but won’t be as high as the 168 originally proposed.
Another compromise: The USDA will continue to allow items with multiple ingredients — such as TV dinners — to count toward the requirements. The USDA also backed away from not counting some snacks toward the item count. And it didn’t go as far as proposed in disqualifying some stores from the food stamp program based on the percentage of the store’s sales that come from hot or prepared foods, which are ineligible for purchase under the program.
The new rules balance the need to improve the variety of healthful foods available to low-income consumers, while maintaining grocery access for people in underserved rural and urban areas, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
In other words, some industry groups argued that if the rules were too strict, some stores would go out of business, leaving low-income and rural shoppers with even less access to food.
Not being able to accept food stamp benefits would severely cut into sales at some stores: Nationally, Americans got a total of $70 billion in benefits in 2015.
The new rules do not change the items that food stamp recipients are allowed to buy with those benefits.
Jonathan Raborn, manager of the Bennington Cubby’s, said his store sees only between two and five food stamp transactions a day.
A national lobbying group for convenience stores said some of the new rules still cause concern but said the compromises removed provisions that would have made it impossible for tens of thousands of retailers to continue to accept food stamps.
The National Association of Convenience Stores reported that two-thirds of convenience retailers said their food sales grew last year, and that “better-for-you” items like fruit and nuts saw strong sales.
Gilman said Cubby’s has added more fresh food in response to customer demand: “That’s where the market is going.”
Iowa-based convenience store chain Kum & Go said the same.
“Kum & Go offers a variety of healthy and better-for-you options, and we’re pleased to be able to continue to participate in SNAP (the food stamp program) to serve our customers,” company attorney Charley Campbell said. “At this time, we are still determining how the changes in SNAP rules will impact our stores but we don’t anticipate major disruptions to how we operate today.” (SNAP stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.)
The final rules will make it possible for rural Nebraska stores, some of which have limited shelf space and limited access to fresh food delivery, to continue to accept food stamp benefits, said Kathy Siefken, executive director of the Nebraska Grocery Industry Association.
“I think it was a good compromise,” she said.