(InvestigateTV/Gray News) - Driving through almost any town in rural America, gas stations have peculiar selections.
Of course, there’s the usual road trip fare: soda, chips and candy. Maybe a section of T-shirts with funny slogans or essentials for your car such as containers of oil and antifreeze.
But there’s often also the out-of-place package of ham in the beer cooler. A random few frozen meals tucked in near the bags of ice. Or an odd bunch of bananas in a basket at the checkout.
The reason in many cases: Stores are working to meet the minimum requirements to accept food stamps – a government program meant to help America’s poorest buy healthy food. It’s a program that can also mean big money for small stores.
By law, stores in the federal program are supposed to regularly stock multiple different types of food that fall into each of the following categories: Fruit/vegetables, dairy, meat/seafood and bread/cereal.
“Not all stores meet the low standards to be in the program. So, there’s two problems. One: standards are too low. And the second problem is there’s no compliance to make sure that those standards are met. But SNAP is vitally important,” said Chicago-based researcher and consultant Mari Gallagher.
On the government’s benefits website, the stated mission of the food stamp or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is “to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency.”
The healthy options are what people from food bank operators to food access advocates say are lacking, particularly in rural stores.
Seven years ago, lawmakers tried to expand the access to food for Americans on benefits by requiring stores to stock a wider variety of healthy food to be allowed to accept benefit money.
But InvestigateTV discovered that the eligibility requirements published by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the program, don’t meet the current legal requirement.
That’s because a few years after passing that law, Congress effectively reversed its own law by pulling funding on the new requirement. So, while the law requires more, stores aren’t required to follow the mandate.
Benefits are big business
While the intention of the program is to help families put food on their table – and make sure their options are nutritious - it’s not always happening.
There are currently around 245,000 stores that accept food stamps across the United States. Many are typical grocery stores with a meat counter, produce department and aisles of refrigerated, frozen and shelf-stable foods. Most benefit dollars are used at such stores, according to the USDA.
But there are thousands of what Gallagher refers to as fringe stores that also take food stamps. Those stores, she explains, don’t offer foods that could regularly support a healthy diet.
“Three reasons: Money, money, money,” Gallagher said.
Gas stations, minimarts, bait shops and stores with huge shelves of liquor can cash in on the benefits program, without providing many healthy options for customers.
While people who use food stamps cannot use the benefits to buy liquor, cigarettes or household supplies, they can buy nearly any food or non-alcoholic drink product including chips, candy bars and slushies.
In some towns, gas stations and minimarts are the only game in town. The National Association of Convenience Stores says nearly half of those stores are in rural areas, and more than 80% of rural Americans live within 10 minutes of a convenience store.
“Convenience stores are important because rural areas don’t always have access to as many goods and services as other places,” said NACS general counsel Doug Kantor, who agrees more fresh food options should be required at stores.
Critics say currently the small stores often don’t offer much for poor residents, some of whom also lack access to transportation to get to a town with a full grocery store. With a limited selection, some customers may only have a few healthy options and walls of sugar or sodium-packed choices.
“There are a lot of people who are missing meals because they cannot afford them, or they’re missing quality meals. They’re going to the minimart gas station and getting something that’s there because they’re really hungry,” Gallagher said.
Accepting SNAP is lucrative for stores. From a store’s perspective, accepting benefits is the same as taking a debit card or cash.
“Retailers love to be in the SNAP program, and why shouldn’t they? There’s a lot of money in the program,” Gallagher said.
In the last fiscal year, convenience stores accepted $3.8 billion in benefits.
In rural Louisiana, small stores on the side of the road sell trinkets, beer, and even life-like baby dolls.
InvestigateTV journalists drove to multiple towns to visit a dozen stores that have applied for and been allowed to accept food stamps. The goal of the undercover reporting: See what residents can buy at their local convenience stores. In some towns, those stores are the only places to buy food.
The findings: Many specialized in junk food and booze – with little to no fresh fruits or vegetables, limited if any meat in the coolers or freezers, and only small containers of often pricey milk.
In one store, the only sign of fresh fruits or vegetables was a shelf with five green bell peppers and one moldy lemon.
Gallagher, the Chicago-based researcher, has spent years working on food research and is credited with popularizing the term “food desert.” In her work, she has done a lot of reconnaissance herself.
“I saw a laundromat one time that was in the SNAP program. They had this little kind of dumpy laundromat and then a little table with, it was just a little like a card table, with some stuff that they sold and accepted SNAP,” she said. “I saw one convenience store that had little gambling machines in there. People were in there smoking. They had no, really no real food.”
To accept food stamps, a store fills out a nine-page form, part of which asks stores to check “yes” or “no” on whether they have the required minimum stock of staple foods.
The current requirement for most stores, according to the USDA’s website, is that each store have three packages of three varieties of food in four categories: Fruits/vegetables, meat/seafood, dairy, and bread/cereals.
For example, to meet the fruit/vegetable category, a store might have three cans of green beans, three bananas and three cartons of orange juice.
Canned tomato soup is a qualifying vegetable. So is a bag of frozen tater tots. Beef jerky is a meat. Jarred alfredo sauce can be counted as milk and a qualifying dairy product.
In addition to the requirements being low and some would say strange, inspections for SNAP compliance are infrequent. According to a USDA spokesperson, the agency “in general” visits stores when they initially apply for the program. It then “may” visit again when they apply for reauthorization every five years.
“USDA colleagues that we work with are very talented and dedicated. Congress actually has to allocate money for there to be money for compliance,” Gallagher said.
Current rules fail to meet 2014 Farm Bill requirements
A law currently on the books strengthens the requirements for stores. It forces them to have more healthy food on the shelves at any time.
But that law is also essentially shelved.
In 2014, Congress passed a new farm bill, a 357-page law that encompasses issues from conservation to subsidies to food stamps.
One of the changes: Instead of requiring three varieties of food in those big categories, stores would now be required to have seven types of food. For example, instead of three types of dairy products such as milk, cheese and sour cream, shops would need to have seven.
“We supported it, and it was a nice instance of bipartisan agreement in Washington that this was an achievable improvement in terms of pushing stores to offer more,” said Kantor, from the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
The USDA amended its benefit rules to reflect the change.
But, NACS and a group of lawmakers said the new rule ended up being written in a way that was too limiting for rural stores.
The bar, according to those in the industry and some lawmakers, was too high.
“Unfortunately when the Department of Agriculture first wrote the rules to implement this, they wrote them in a way that nobody understood or thought made sense,” Kantor said.
In 2016, more than 150 members of the House of Representatives signed a letter asking the rule be reconsidered.
Senators, including the current chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), also wrote a letter to the secretary of agriculture.
It stated, in part, “The cost and burden of complying with the proposed rule could be too high for these retailers to continue participating in SNAP. This would result in the exact opposite of what is intended- it would reduce access to healthy food for SNAP participants.”
The hang-up is in the word “variety.” Currently, only one type of product can be a “variety” – so roast beef and a steak only count for one variety of meat/seafood: beef. Orange juice and fresh oranges are one variety of fruit/vegetable.
Stores say it’s too hard to stock that much variety in a small, rural store where deliveries are few and far between. In particular, the meat and dairy categories would run out of options very quickly if only one type of beef, chicken, etc. counted toward the total as the original rule suggested.
Part of the NACS argument stated on its website: “On average, convenience stores get food deliveries 1-2 times a week, which can make stocking certain foods, particularly perishable foods, difficult. Convenience stores have limited space and storage. The average convenience store is approximately 3,000 square feet—almost 15 times smaller than the average supermarket.”
So in 2017, Congress essentially pulled back its own mandate in an omnibus appropriations bill. It said the rule established by the still-in-effect law would not be funded until some definitions are hammered out. As of this date, it still has not happened.
Now, in 2021, while the law still technically says stores should have seven different kinds of fruits and vegetables, that’s not the requirement in practice.
“The law that Congress wrote is achievable, and frankly we think they were clear. As I said, the Department of Agriculture, I think, made it more complicated than it should have been in a way that folks would not have been able to implement,” Kantor said. “We hope that they’ll finish the job of simplifying that soon so that everybody can then comply with the new law and offer more.”
The USDA answered questions through email, but the agency declined to go on camera for an interview.
InvestigateTV specifically asked the USDA why it has not finalized the rule that would bring the program into step with the law.
A spokesperson responded through email: “USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) received significant comments in response to the proposed rule. FNS is currently determining the appropriate next steps to balance the improved retailer stocking requirements with the costs and operational realities of such changes.”
Food bank replaces grocery store
The last grocery store in Pine Hill, Alabama, closed some 30 years ago, according to the recollection of former residents.
All that’s left now is a dollar store and two gas stations.
“Even when I was small coming up, it wasn’t a whole lot here. But we had three grocery stores, and now there’s no grocery store at all,” said Edith Ruffin, who grew up in Pine Hill and now lives in Selma.
The twisted irony: Ruffin now runs the town’s food bank out of one of the old grocery store buildings.
A few times a week, Ruffin loads up her car and drives the 60 miles between her home in Selma and her hometown to run the food bank.
“Dollar General is just canned goods and, you know, snack stuff. They might have canned vegetables, but there’s no fresh stuff there,” Ruffin said. “Here at the food bank, we are able to give them potatoes and tomatoes. We’ve been blessed with a three-door cooler now so I can add dairy stuff.”
An InvestigateTV videographer went into the three stores that accept food stamps in Pine Hill. There were options for canned and frozen vegetables, fruit, and meat – but as Ruffin said, fresh food was virtually non-existent.
“So, it’s just the food bank itself going on right here … just the food bank. I know a lot of them come here and they are calling me later when we have a drive-by giveaway, and they say, ‘Thank you so much, you know, because I don’t know what we would do if the food bank wasn’t there.’”
Dollar General said it offers convenient, affordable access to components to make nutritious meals such as frozen and canned vegetables and fruits. A corporate news release states the company has fresh produce in more than 1,300 of its stores, which would account for about 7% of its stores, though it has published plans to expand. The closest large grocery stores to Pine Hill are a Piggly Wiggly, 25 minutes away in Camden, and a Walmart, 15 minutes away in the next county.
“You look at people with low income, how can you pay somebody for taking you down there? You don’t have the money for it, or if you squeeze it … you get there and pay for the gas for somebody to take you, there is a dent in your money to buy food,” Ruffin said.
Gallagher deployed her special missing meals deficit model in Wilcox County, where Pine Hill is located, at the request of InvestigateTV to get a clearer picture of the hunger in the county.
The goal: Factor in all kinds of things on a local level from seasonal employment and government benefits to school lunches and food pantries to figure out how many people are missing meals each day, week and year.
Her findings: People who live in Wilcox County miss an estimated 686,000 meals a year, which is equal to almost 1 million pounds of food. Said another way, the average family or household misses an average of 3.5 meals a week.
The Pine Hill area is one of the more stretched parts of the county. The around 1,100 residents there miss more than 67,000 meals each year.
If everyone in the county shared the missing meals at the same time, no one in the county would eat a meal for three weeks. (Full reports available at the end of the story).
Solving hunger issues by looking at access, education
It has a storied and complicated history, much of it tied to slavery. It is a place where descendants of slaves now live, home to people who marched from Selma to Montgomery.
And for many, it’s a home they won’t abandon. But to remain, they need help.
Tamika Dial works as the coordinator for the Wilcox County Extension Office. For her, helping rural Alabama serves a personal purpose, but she can’t do it alone.
“It’s a lot to live in rural Alabama. I wouldn’t trade it for the world, but it’s a lot of things that if somebody would really take the time to hear what we are saying they can see that we need help here,” she said.
Some of the biggest obstacles in the county, Dial said, come down to accessing resources and transportation to get to those resources.
Since many people are locked into their towns with only gas stations or convenience stores, they are stuck with the options that exist there. On top of the lack of choices, Dial said the prices are also worse, meaning food stamps don’t stretch as far.
“When you come to rural Alabama, you don’t have enough competition so you’re going to pay more,” Dial said.
InvestigateTV looked at prices in rural convenience stores, a dollar store and the large grocery store in Camden. Many items were double the price per weight – and often the choices were only to compare fresh foods to canned options.
Dial said they have worked with stores in an attempt to get more fresh food options, but the owners haven’t had luck keeping the stock or selling it.
“A lot of our convenience stores started complaining because they were losing money because a lot of folks will not go in and buy the fresh fruits and vegetables. They would be purchasing chips and candy and the gum, and the business owners started taking a loss in trying to do that,” Dial said.
Now, much of the focus of her office is on educating people on making healthier choices. They help teach school children about eating vegetables. They talk to people about choosing granola bars instead of candy and drinking water and 100% juice instead of sugar-filled juice mixes.
The office also works with stores to make healthy choices stand out.
“We try our very best to make sure all those good items are the items that you see when you first walk into the store. Like your water… your 100% juices,” Dial said.
For Dial and her coworkers, helping people make healthy choices even when those choices are slim is a matter of life or death.
“Healthy choices… because it makes you live longer. It cuts out obesity. It lowers the heart rate, it lowers diabetes, cholesterol, and if we can get these children at an early age, we can cut out a lot of health problems that may be in our rural communities,” Dial said.
But like many working in rural areas and putting in so much time and heart, Dial said they need help.
“We are not asking for handouts. We just ask to be recognized and noticed and help us combat all these disparities that we have in rural Alabama,” Dial said.
In Wilcox County, Edith Ruffin, who runs the food bank, plans to keep doing what she can on a small level. Her next big goal: Get a fresh food truck that comes into Camden to head the 25 minutes down the road to Pine Hill.
“I do believe that if we could get that vegetable and fruit truck coming through this area we could do more,” Ruffin said.
She once tried to haul fresh fruit and vegetables from the Camden truck, but the pallet fell from her car onto the highway. Ruffin said she nearly wrecked and is too concerned to try it again.
For now, she leans on the generosity of others, too. The food bank in Selma helps donate food, and a local company helps give money to buy more.
Dial, from the extension office, hopes more stores would consider coming to the county.
“I think that we need to be looked at closer and see the problems and see how important it is that we need to…we need more stores in our area,” she said.
The NACS wants the USDA to move the rule changes forward so the requirements are higher for stores, and the organization’s general counsel said he will continue pushing for the finalization.
“We continue to support it and hope that the Department of Agriculture will finish some rules that allow us to implement it,” Kantor said. “There are some impediments to offering more variety, especially in small stores like convenience stores. But we do think they should offer more.”
Meantime, Kantor said many stores are taking it upon themselves to offer more.
“As people have wanted to buy more different kinds of foods, more fresh foods, convenience stores have started to offer more and more of those products,” Kantor said.
Dollar General is one such store. While in Pine Hill, Alabama the store didn’t have much fresh food on hand, the corporate headquarters said it plans to expand fresh food to up to 10,000 of its stores within the next several years.
That move would mean fresh produce in more than half of its stores. With the company’s estimate of 75% of Americans living within five miles of a Dollar General, it could mean a significant increase in availability.
When it comes to the bigger picture, Gallagher hopes to see changes in mindset and policy.
“If you don’t want to do it for the moral imperative you can do it for the economic imperative. I mean, because in the end, you know, we’re going to have a workforce that can’t pay attention to this, a lot of missed work because of diet-related diseases,” Gallagher said.
One potential solution Gallagher proposes is building SNAP compliance into health department inspections, since someone already goes into stores regularly at the county level.
“Let’s put some money together for compliance because we all eat as part of human condition, and food and access to food should be a conscious part of our infrastructure maintenance,” Gallagher said.
Wilcox County, Alabama and Ashtabula County, Ohio Full Reports
Courtesy: Mari Gallagher Research and Consulting Group
Copyright 2021 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
Copyright 2021 Gray Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.