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SNAP Bill Could Have Unintended Consequences on WV Farmers Markets

Food activists such as Bradley Wilson fear a new bill intended to require that SNAP benefits only be used for more healthy options could have unintended consequences on places such as farmers' markets. (WVFOODLINK)
Food activists such as Bradley Wilson fear a new bill intended to require that SNAP benefits only be used for more healthy options could have unintended consequences on places such as farmers' markets. (WVFOODLINK)
March 2, 2016

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - A bill at the Legislature to require food benefits be used for healthy options could have unintended consequences - including maybe making it harder for some low-income folks to shop at farmers' markets.

Senate Bill 626 is intended to require that Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits - formerly known as food stamps - only be used to buy more nutritious food items approved by the Women Infants and Children (WIC) program. But Bradley Wilson, director of WVFOODLINK, a project to improve state access to information about food resources. said it's not at all clear how that will impact smaller merchants on the margins - including at farmers markets new to accepting SNAP benefits.

The state Department of Health and Human Resources "will have to create new standards across the state," he said. "Farmers' markets will have to comply with them. Additional costs, a lot of additional work, and a lot of confusion."

SB 626's supporters have said WIC items are healthier because they have to meet a much higher nutrition standard. The bill has passed the Senate and is now in the House.

One big issue is that nearly 2,000 retailers in the state take SNAP, but only about 300 are WIC certified. Many of the SNAP stores have WIC items, said Wilson, an assistant professor of geography at West Virginia University. However, he said, it's not at all clear how the rules will work - and they could chase many of the SNAP stores out of that market, which could leave many of the one in five state residents who use SNAP too far from healthy options.

"If there are no healthy choices in their area, restricting their ability to use SNAP dollars increases food insecurity," he said. "It deepens the food desert problem."

SB 626 would make the state DHHS secretary seek a waiver from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, to implement the new requirement. Wilson said it would be better to pursue a USDA initiative that would modestly increase the number of healthy options SNAP stores have to offer. He said that could help the bill avoid unintended consequences.

"I don't think that it's mean-spirited," he said. "I don't think that the folks want to deny people access to healthy foods, but there are only 293 stores in West Virginia that meet the WIC requirement."

More information on WVFOODLINK is online at foodlink.wvu.edu. Track SB 262 at legis.sate.wv.us.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV