Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)
Last Updated: January 14, 2021
Convenience stores provide essential access to nutrition for low income Americans who live in rural or urban environments. Out of the more than 150,000 convenience stores in the United States, more than 111,000 participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—representing approximately 45% of all retail outlets authorized to accept SNAP benefits. Convenience stores are often the only establishments easily accessible by walking or public transportation, or the only food retail locations open for business with extended or 24-hour service.
In 2014, a comprehensive Farm Bill was passed and signed into law that imposed some additional obligations on SNAP retailers. Subsequently, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), the agency that oversees SNAP, finalized a rule in December 2016, which enacted some of the 2014 Farm Bill’s provisions and other requirements for retailers. Congress passed legislation in 2017 and 2018 that delayed the rule until FNS expanded the definition of “variety” so that it is workable for small format retailers.
In April 2019, FNS published its proposal to broaden the definition of “variety” and NACS filed public comments on behalf of the industry. The agency has not finalized its rule.
Many financially challenged Americans rely on convenience stores to redeem their SNAP benefits, especially in both urban and rural areas where they do not have access to traditional grocery stores or because they shop during hours when larger format food stores may be closed. The local convenience store is often their only outlet to redeem this benefit. To participate in SNAP, convenience stores must meet so-called “depth of stock” requirements that specify the amount and types of foods they must have available on their shelves for customers. The 2014 Farm Bill expanded these requirements. Subsequently, FNS finalized a rule enacting those depth of stock provisions as well as additional provisions.
Under the Final Rule, to participate in SNAP, convenience stores must:
- Stock 7 varieties of foods in each of the 4 staple food categories: (1) meat, poultry, or fish, (2) bread or cereals, (3) vegetables or fruits, and (4) dairy, and at least 1 perishable food item in 3 of the categories.
- They must have three units of every variety, 84 total items, on shelf
Meeting the new requirements can be difficult for convenience stores and other small format retailers who face constraints on supply and delivery. 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. This means that convenience stores have limited space in which to display and store products, particularly perishable products that must be refrigerated or frozen.
In its final rule in 2016, FNS defined what counts as “variety” in an overly narrow way where a retailer can only count one item per species (i.e. if you stock sliced ham and a can of pork sausages, only one can count as pork). As defined in the 2016 final rule, the definition of “variety” would present significant compliance challenges for small format retailers. In its proposed rule published in April 2019, FNS proposed expanding what will count as variety in the staple food categories which would make it more realistic for convenience stores to comply with the new requirements.
It is critical that Congress and the Biden Administration understand the important role convenience stores have in SNAP. Convenience stores represent 45% of all retail outlets authorized to accept SNAP benefits—they are intensely local businesses that serve as a gathering place and source of community pride and offer an ever-growing range of products and services.
NACS has long advocated for FNS to expand the definition of variety and believes that the agency’s proposed definition would provide retailers with more flexibility to meet their requirements. NACS filed public comments on the proposal and will continue to work with policymakers to ensure the final rule provides the greatest possible flexibility for the program’s retail partners.
NACS members may click here for an analysis on the Proposed Rule’s expanded definition of “variety.” For an overview of the 2016 final rule, please click here. For a more in depth compliance guide for NACS members, please visit the Government Relations Resource page.