But as federal policymakers draft a budget plan this month that may include the reauthorization of the Farm Bill -- the largest program of which is SNAP, representing half its spending -- they have a powerful opportunity to allow states to require SNAP-eligible stores to stock healthier foods.

Many low-income families rely on SNAP to make ends meet. They also rely on small convenience stores for a lot of their food shopping, if they live in a neighborhood where there is no grocery store, public transit is unreliable, and they don’t own a car.

Of course, convenience store shelves are also notoriously short on produce and other healthy products, filled instead with packaged foods, candy, liquor and cigarettes. I walked into a convenience store recently and noticed a sticker on the door proclaiming, “We accept SNAP!” The store was heavily stocked with soda, chips, and doughnuts, with barely a vegetable or piece of fruit in sight.

For store owners, the ability to accept SNAP vouchers translates to real income. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, in 2010 convenience stores across the country took in $2.7 billion in revenue from SNAP participants.
The USDA currently doesn’t require much of retailers applying to participate in the program – which is, after all, a government nutrition program. To be eligible, stores only need to offer at least three varieties of foods in four broad “staple food groups” – meat, poultry or fish; bread or cereal; vegetables or fruits; and dairy products – with perishables in just two of the categories.

Grocery stores are stocked well beyond the requirements because it’s their business. But convenience stores have no financial incentive to step up their offerings and provide healthier options for customers who rely on their inventory to feed their families.

Some nutrition advocates fear, understandably, that strengthening standards would exacerbate the problem of “food deserts,” neighborhoods with limited access to healthy, affordable food. But just recently, the USDA upgraded requirements for retailers who participate in the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program, which has supported low-income mothers and their young children nationwide for decades.

For the first time in the program’s 35-year history, store owners accepting WIC vouchers are now required to carry fruits and vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and low-fat dairy products.

Before the new WIC requirements were introduced in 2009, some feared that corner store owners without the know-how and equipment to stock perishable foods like fruits and vegetables would have to drop out of the program, diminishing the number of eligible vendors. But research by the Altarum Institute, a nonprofit consulting organization, has shown that most small vendors transitioned successfully to the new food requirements – and that WIC participants reported eating more fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lower-fat milk after the new requirements were adopted.

Stepping up the requirements for stores participating in the SNAP program would benefit everyone involved. SNAP recipients would benefit from better access to healthier foods for their families. Store owners, with an expanded selection of higher-quality foods, could see a boost in sales receipts. Even families who aren’t eligible for SNAP would benefit, because more of their local stores would be required to sell healthier foods, improving options for the neighborhood as a whole.

By permitting states to pilot a program that sets higher standards for store owners accepting SNAP, the new Farm Bill apparently in the works can offer a powerful incentive for convenience store owners to bump up the quality of what’s on their shelves. Instead of debating what our neediest residents can or should buy, we first need to focus on making healthy choices possible.

Christine Fry is a senior policy analyst with Public Health Law & Policy, a nonprofit law center based in Oakland, California.