Mike Beal, COO of Kansas City, Kan.-based Balls Food Stores, testified June 8 in support of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in a hearing held by the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Agriculture on behalf of the National Grocers Association (NGA), the Washington, D.C.-based trade association representing the independent sector of the supermarket industry.
Beal noted the importance of SNAP to indies in his testimony before U.S. Rep. Jahana Hayes, D-Conn., chair of the Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations Subcommittee; ranking member U.S. Rep. Don Bacon, R-Neb.; and other committee members. In 2020, SNAP was responsible for almost 200,000 U.S. grocery industry jobs earning wages totaling more than $6.7 billion.
Referring to SNAP as “a shining example of a public-private partnership,” Beal observed that the program is key to the health of local communities.
“If it were not for SNAP, many grocery stores would simply not exist in areas that need them most,” Beal said in his testimony. “Numerous rural areas throughout the country are home to high concentrations of SNAP participants who rely on local grocery stores to access healthy and affordable foods. In many small towns, the local independent grocer is the only store in town and provides an anchor to the community.”
According to an Economic Research Service report released last November, SNAP created larger relative impacts in rural economies than in urban ones. For every dollar spent locally in the SNAP program, $1.80 in positive economic benefit is realized, helping keep local economies stronger and enabling them to recover faster from economic downturns, and supporting local jobs.
NGA strongly backs legislative proposals to improve online SNAP programs, particularly efforts to require the Secretary of Agriculture to implement online SNAP purchasing in all states, in addition to providing resources to develop and maintain a secure, easy-to-use online and app-based portal for Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) redemption to enable smaller retailers to offer products for online SNAP purchasing.
“Independent grocers wish to offer this service to their customers, and many have applied to [the U.S. Food and Nutrition Service] to participate,” Beal testified. “However, barriers to participation include technical challenges, financial constraints to launch and continuously operate the program, and a lengthy application and approval process.”
NGA is also in favor of increasing incentives for using SNAP benefits to purchase a range of foods, including fruits and vegetables, instead of restricting choice. “The dietary habits of SNAP and non-SNAP customers have been shown to be nearly identical by USDA,” Beal pointed out. “Consequently, we do not believe that restricting choice will advance [this] important public health goal. Additionally, SNAP choice restrictions would require the federal government to identify, evaluate and track the nutritional profile of the thousands of foods that are available in today’s grocery stores, resulting in a complicated ‘food code.’”
NGA heartily approved of USDA’s decision to permanently increase monthly SNAP benefits by 27% beginning Oct. 1, 2021, the first major change to the program since 1975. The trade organization also supports the prohibition on EBT processing fees and supports extension of the ban to restore competition to the contracting process.
“We want to work to maintain our strong existing public-private partnership with the SNAP program and continue to serve our rural and urban customers,” said Beal. “We hope to improve online purchasing and do as much as possible to provide incentives for consumers to make better purchasing decisions. We want to maintain benefit levels as much as possible. And we would like to provide responsible control of operational fees in order to make sure even more retailers are able to provide services.”
Last year, NGA introduced a SNAP Online Purchasing Toolkit detailing how retailers can prepare to accept SNAP EBT payments online. By streamlining the process, the association aimed to ensure that independent grocers were doing everything possible to make essentials accessible to the neediest members of their communities.
Balls Food Stores is a third-generation family-owned company that operates 27 retail grocery stores in the greater Kansas City metropolitan area, primarily under the Price Chopper and Hen House banners.