USDA changes SNAP retailer rule

Rule requires SNAP authorized retail establishments to offer larger inventory and variety of healthy food options.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced final changes to increase access to healthy food choices for participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The provisions in this rule require SNAP authorized retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options.

"This final rule balances the need to improve the healthy staple foods available for purchase at participating stores while maintaining food access for SNAP recipients in underserved rural and urban areas," Vilsack said. "We received many helpful comments on the proposed rule and have modified the final rule in important ways to ensure that these dual goals are met. I am confident that this rule will ensure the retailers that participate in SNAP offer a variety of healthy foods for purchase and that SNAP recipients will continue to have access to the stores they need to be able to purchase food."

The proposed rule — released Feb. 17, 2016 — garnered significant criticism for drastically exceeding the requirements in statute and for placing undue burdens on convenience stores in particular.

House Agriculture Committee chairman Michael Conaway (R., Texas) said, “Based on a cursory review of the rule, it appears that USDA responded to concerns with the initial proposed ruling. I look forward to reviewing the details and continuing to engage on this important issue. As the committee pointed out (Wednesday) in its report, improving access to healthy food is an important goal, but those improvements should not unduly burden certain types of retailers."

The final rule provides long-overdue updates to SNAP retailer eligibility criteria. Previously, a retailer could be authorized to participate in the program with a minimum inventory of 12 items. Now, the minimum number of required food items has been expanded to 84. These changes are in keeping with the primary purpose of the program.

USDA extended the comment period for the proposed rule to ensure that all interested parties had the opportunity to lend their voice to the final rule and made significant changes to respond to those comments. The final rule announced today incorporates feedback from more than 1,200 comments received and ensures that the new standards will balance commenters' concerns.

In particular, in the final rule, multiple ingredient foods will continue to count towards retailer eligibility. In addition, the existing regulatory requirement that specifies the threshold of hot and cold prepared foods sold that makes a location an ineligible restaurant (rather than an eligible SNAP retailer) is far more flexible than in the proposed rule. Now, the requirement is nearly the same as the requirement that has been in place for some time, with only a modest change to account for foods heated and consumed on site after purchase.

Changes to the definition of accessory foods ensure that stores are not able to participate in SNAP by selling primarily snack foods. At the same time, the definition of variety has been expanded to make it easier for stores to meet the new requirements mandated by the Agricultural Act of 2014, and the number of each variety of staple food items retailers must have in stock has been halved from the proposed rule — from six to three.

For more information about this final rule, visit: www.fns.usda.gov/snap/enhancing-retailer-standards-supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program-snap.

The House Agriculture Committee’s SNAP hearing series report notes that work remains to improve access to food and to incentivize healthy food purchases using SNAP benefits. That finding was reinforced by USDA’s recent report on SNAP purchases showing that there is plenty of work to be done to improve the diets of low-income Americans, particularly those who depend on SNAP.

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