When the novel coronavirus hit in spring 2020, record numbers of people signed up for the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
In 2018, 39.7 million Americans were enrolled, and by 2021, that jumped to 42 million. Because convenience stores account for 45% of the approximate 248,000 SNAP-qualified retailers, these developments equated to more electronic benefits transfer (EBT) transactions.
“Rutter’s realized an almost 64% increase in EBT sales dollars and 39% increase in EBT transactions in 2020 versus 2019. (And) 2021 saw an additional increase of almost 29% in EBT sales dollars compared to 2020,” noted Chris Hartman, director of fuels, forecourt and advertising for Rutter’s. Prior to 2009, the York, Pa., family-owned business had only a few sites accepting EBT sales, but since a rule change enacted that year, all 78 stores now participate.
RaceTrac has been a SNAP provider for more than 10 years, and it, too, registered a significant increase of qualified purchases.
“From March 2020 to March 2021, the percentage of EBT transactions at our stores nearly doubled. Moreover, stores saw a 65% increase in EBT dollars used,” said Eva Rigamonti, associate general counsel and executive director of public policy for the Atlanta-based company, which owns and operates 558 stores.
“Our presence in rural, suburban and urban areas throughout the Southeast allows us to play an important role in providing food to low-income families through SNAP,” she added. “For beneficiaries, our stores serve as critical locations to access competitively priced, SNAP-eligible foods during extended hours when other food retailers are closed.”
Established in 1975, SNAP falls under the purview of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) directive. Beneficiaries may use the funds to purchase specific products, including but not limited to meat, dairy, produce, bread, cereal, snacks and nonalcoholic drinks.
During the pandemic, emergency benefits were increased by 15%, but that program expired in September. However, Congress approved a $36.24 per person per month increase, or more than 25%, for fiscal year 2022, effective Oct. 1, 2021. This was the first non-pandemic-related raise since the program’s inception.
Then in December, separate bipartisan legislation allowing SNAP dollars to be used to buy certain hot or prepared foods, which currently are excluded, was introduced. The SNAP Plus Act of 2021 sponsors reason that not only do many SNAP users work multiple jobs, limiting time available to cook meals from scratch, but that Americans have migrated toward more ready-to-eat options. That’s also the direction c-store foodservice operations have been moving.
“Under the current rules of the program, a SNAP individual can purchase a cold sandwich packaged to go at a convenience store, but if that sandwich is toasted or placed in a panini press, it can no longer be purchased using SNAP benefits. This makes no logical sense, and is especially burdensome to SNAP families and individuals who are elderly, homeless or disabled,” said Anna Ready Blom, director, government relations for the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).
If passed, this new allowance would not only expand qualified items in c-stores, but also create more reasons for SNAP users to come inside.
“It’s fairly common for EBT customers to have mixed EBT and non-EBT items in their baskets. As an example, a guest’s transaction may include pre-pay for fuel as well as a bottle of water and a piece of fresh fruit or a box of cereal — but only the water, fruit and cereal would be purchased with EBT; the fuel would be purchased with another tender,” said Rigamonti.
What’s more, 7-Eleven Hawaii has begun fulfilling online orders for SNAP-eligible products and making them available for pickup or delivery. The c-store chain worked on the project with Vroom Delivery and FNS for the past year.
C-stores must apply for and be granted authority to process EBT transactions by meeting one of two criteria.
Criterion A demands retailers continuously carry three stocking units of three different varieties of staple foods in each staple food category: vegetables or fruit; dairy products; meat, poultry or fish; and breads or cereals. Additionally, businesses must stock at least one perishable item in two staple categories.
Criterion B requires more than 50% of a store’s total gross sales be from staple foods. The online SNAP program demands a separate certification for e-commerce, also issued by FNS.
“NACS is currently waiting on FNS … to finalize a new definition for which staple foods can count toward those requirements. NACS has met with officials at FNS about the critical access convenience stores provide to Americans relying on SNAP, and how any requirements need to be workable to ensure those stores can remain valuable partners in the program,” said Ready Blom.
Still, for many retailers, the effort delivers a worthwhile return on investment, on many levels.
“At Rutter’s, our goal is to provide the ultimate convenience to our customers,” said Hartman. “Accepting EBT purchases allows us to provide more ways, for more customers, to shop our store.”