Rolled back regulations could increase the number of stores that can accept SNAP money.

By Mike Pomranz
Updated May 30, 2019
Credit: Mindspace/Getty Images

America’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) — which is still colloquially referred to by the anachronistic name “food stamps” — can be quite controversial for benefits intended to keep people from going hungry. At the same time, however, certain restrictions on the program probably do make sense. For one, it makes sense that SNAP recipients should only be able to use the benefits to buy food. On the flip side of that, there’s an inherent logic that, to accept SNAP benefits, a store should be required to stock some minimum level of food items. But what should those items be? The Trump administration is attempting to loosen some of those regulations — and some of the suggested “staple foods” are raising eyebrows.

Canned spray cheese, beef jerky, and pimiento-stuffed olives are three items Bloomberg chose to highlight in reporting on changes proposed by the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to SNAP requirements for retailers. At the heart of the debate is a classic political schism: Democrats advocating for benefit holders and Republicans seeking to roll back regulations on business owners. While the Obama administration worked towards requiring stores that accept SNAP money to stock a larger variety of healthier foods, the Trump administration has instead taken the opposite approach of attempting to reduce the burden on store owners by making it easier for them to be in compliance with SNAP regulations.

As one example, the 2016 rules broke “cow milk-based cheese” down into two varieties. The new proposed rules would break that category down into four varieties: fresh cow milk-based cheeses; soft and semi-soft cow milk-based cheeses; hard, firm, semi-hard, or medium-hard cow milk-based cheeses; and cow milk-based cheese products and cow milk-based cheese- or dairy-based sauces, spreads, or dips. That last category is proving to be especially controversial as it includes “canned spray cheese sauce, canned cheese dipping sauce, jarred Alfredo pasta sauce, and American cheese slices.”

“You don’t have to have a nutrition degree to know that canned spray cheese sauce is not a staple food,” Margo Wootan, vice president for nutrition with the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Bloomberg, criticizing the proposal. “[Stores] could meet the fruit and vegetable stocking requirements with fresh apples, oranges and bananas or a liquor store could just offer lemon juice, Craisins, maraschino cherries and pimiento-stuffed olives,” she continued. “Those are not real food you could serve to your family for dinner.”

Oddly enough, Bloomberg points out that the proposal states that these changes would save a store $500 over five years — not necessarily life-changing money. For now, the FNS plan is open for public comment until June 4. Any changes to the current system would happen after that date.