USDA Proposes More ‘Variety’ for SNAP Retailers

NACS files comments supporting the agency’s proposed rule, giving retailers needed flexibility.

June 05, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Yesterday, NACS filed public comments on the Food and Nutrition Service’s (FNS) proposed rule to expand the definition of “variety” and what a retailer must offer in order to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). NACS supported the agency’s proposal because a broader definition of “variety” will make it more feasible for retailers to participate in the program, ensuring the greatest access to food for SNAP families.

In 2016, FNS finalized regulations that increased the eligibility requirements small format retailers must meet to participate in SNAP. Retailers will be required to have seven varieties in each of the four “staple food” categories (dairy; meat, poultry, or fish; breads or cereals; and vegetables or fruits) for a total of 28 items. Of the seven varieties of food in each category, at least one item in three categories must be perishable, i.e. food that will spoil within two to three weeks.

However, the agency’s narrow definition of “variety” in the final rule would have made it extremely difficult for convenience stores and other small retailers to achieve these requirements. For instance, different items from the same species (e.g., apples and apple juice or ground beef and a can of beef stew) could not count as two separate varieties because they come from the same species. As such, Congress passed legislation delaying the enactment of some of the rule’s provisions until FNS rewrote the definition of “variety” so that is achievable for small format retailers.

In early April, FNS published its proposed definition of “variety” giving retailers and stakeholders a 60-day public comment period to respond to their proposal. FNS would expand the items that would count as different varieties in the (1) dairy, (2) meat, poultry, or fish, and (3) bread or cereal categories.

In the dairy category, FNS would provide retailers with greater flexibility for milk, cheese and yogurt varieties. Specifically, FNS would allow retailers to count (1) full-fat cow’s milk, (2) reduced-fat cow’s milk, (3) a liquid shelf-stable cow’s milk and (4) powdered cow’s milk as four discrete varieties. FNS would also allow retailers to count (1) fresh cheese (e.g., cream cheese), (2) semisoft cheese (e.g., mozzarella cheese), (3) hard cheese (e.g., Swiss cheese) and (4) cheese-based product (e.g., jarred Alfredo pasta sauce) as four discrete varieties in the dairy category. For yogurt, (1) a milk-based yogurt drink (e.g., lassi), (2) full-fat milk-based yogurt and (3) reduced-fat milk-based yogurt would count as separate varieties.

For the meat, poultry or fish category, the agency would allow a perishable and a shelf-stable item for any species to count as one discrete variety. This means that refrigerated bacon (perishable) and canned ham (shelf-stable) would each count as one variety of food in the meat, poultry or fish category. The agency is also proposing to provide greater flexibility in the bread or cereal category.

In its comment letter, NACS commends the agency on expanding “variety,” and encourages FNS to consider the most commonsense approach, allowing a retailer to count distinctly different items from the same species (e.g. such as sliced ham and bacon, which wouldn’t count under the new definition because they are both perishable pork items).

“While complicated, the Agency’s proposal would provide flexibility for small format stores to meet their stocking requirements without becoming burdensome to the point where stores leave the Program. Less flexibility than what has been proposed would, however, be a problem,” stated the letter.

As FNS reviews the public comments and drafts its final definition, NACS urges it to finalize a definition that ensures convenience store retailers can meet their eligibility requirements and continue providing valuable access to food for SNAP families.

NACS members: You have access to a SNAP rule compliance guide (PDF).