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The Journal Gazette

  • Associated Press photos A shopper leaves Carl's Cafe in Rankin, Pa., on Thursday. The Trump administration's plan to cut the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program has the store's owner Carl Lewis concerned because half his customers use food stamps.

  • Dianne Shenk helps Terry Warby in Dylamatos Market last month in the Hazelwood neighborhood of Pittsburgh. About a quarter of Shenk’s customers pay with benefits from SNAP.

Tuesday, March 06, 2018 1:00 am

Grocers fret over SNAP cut

Feel proposed plan for food boxes will hurt them, patrons

KRISTEN de GROOT and GENE J. PUSKAR | Associated Press

RANKIN, Pa. – Finding fresh food in this tiny riverside community that was hit hard by the steel industry's decline has always been a challenge. Then, seven years ago, Carl's Cafe opened.

The grocery store, near new government housing, offers cooking classes and a source of fresh, healthy food. Proprietor Carl Lewis even has customers sign a pledge: If he provides fresh produce, they'll buy it. Five such purchases, and they get their sixth free.

About half his customers pay with benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, so the government's proposal to replace the debit card-type program with a pre-assembled box of shelf-stable goods delivered to recipients worries him and other grocery operators in poor areas about their patrons' nutrition, and their own bottom line.

“If half of your business goes away, it's going to hurt,” Lewis said, noting that if SNAP spending benefits are taken away, so will recipients' ability to participate in programs at his store.

“I see kids educating parents on fresh food choices,” he said. “To see them reach for an apple before they reach for a Snickers bar, it's fantastic. But if people are too worried about where their next meal is coming from, it's going to be hard to teach them how to cook an eggplant.”

The idea called “America's Harvest Box” was floated in February in the Trump administration's 2019 budget proposal, tucked inside a plan to slash SNAP by roughly $213 billion, or 30 percent, over the next 10 years. Households that receive more than $90 in SNAP benefits each month – roughly 81 percent of households in the program, or about 16.4 million – would be affected.

The plan raised concerns, and details were sparse.

Grocery store trade associations, as well as nonprofits like The Food Trust, argue that removing food stamp recipients' ability to buy their own provisions could undermine recent successes in eliminating “food deserts.”

“This notion that they need to be told what to buy is not borne out the by the data,” said Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association. “We want to provide healthy, affordable products to everybody, and we want to give customers a choice to take these dollars and make the best decision for their families.”