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What Counts As A Healthy 'Staple Food' Option For SNAP Benefits?


There's a controversy brewing over which foods count as staple foods when it comes to the mandate to stock healthy options in stores that take SNAP or food stamp benefits. To qualify as a SNAP retailer, stores must offer a variety of foods. And this includes corner and convenience stores. But as NPR's Allison Aubrey reports, a Trump administration proposal would allow stores to count items such as canned spray cheese and beef jerky as staples.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: People who receive SNAP benefits spend billions of dollars a year in convenience stores and corner stores. And Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest says a lot of what you see in these stores is just snack food.

MARGO WOOTAN: Looking around this convenience store, almost all of this is chips, snack cakes, candy.

AUBREY: Wootan says rather than nudge stores to stock more healthy options, a Trump administration proposal goes the other direction.

WOOTAN: The Trump administration would weaken what stores have to offer.

AUBREY: A rule written in the Obama era required a larger variety of staple foods. But now the Trump administration would give stores much more flexibility. They'd allow stores to count con queso dip, canned spray cheese and other processed cheese products as staple foods. In addition, dried meats such as beef jerky would count.

WOOTAN: They've actually created a distinct variety for dried meat, but very few families would serve up a Slim Jim as the main course in a meal.

AUBREY: Wootan says SNAP benefits are intended to provide families with foods they can prepare and cook at home. And she argues it would be helpful if convenience stores did better.

WOOTAN: So that a family, when they come in here to use their SNAP benefits, could do a real shop for foods that they could prepare into meals.

AUBREY: When the Trump administration opened up its proposal for comment, Rob Forsyth, who operates the MotoMart chain of convenience stores, weighed in with his support for more flexibility. He says the Obama era regulation to require more variety would have hurt his business.

ROB FORSYTH: The situation is that the law as promulgated would have squeezed out convenience store operators.

AUBREY: That's because, Forsyth says, he can only sell what people are willing to buy. He operates in small towns places, including Clover, Wis., Galion, Ohio. And he says his SNAP recipient customers do buy certain healthy foods.

FORSYTH: You know, these are some of the most neediest folks in our country. And so they'll roll up to our store, and they'll want to buy their orange juice and milk and, in our stores, apples, oranges, bananas.

AUBREY: But he says when it comes to other categories such as vegetables, meats, cheeses and other dairy items, only a limited number of items sell. And he argues dried meats, like beef jerky, and processed cheeses are fine staples because they're affordable.

FORSYTH: Definitely, affordability is a huge aspect. It doesn't do me any good to sell almond milk and goat cheese because they're expensive items. And you have to meet SNAP recipients where they are.

AUBREY: So he says it's a challenge to both stock a large variety of healthy items and make his bottom line work.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF JESPER RYOM'S "PACER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.