Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The trials of writing regulations

The Agriculture Department (USDA) has recently proposed new rules for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly Food Stamps). The reaction to these rules shows the inherent problems of government regulations.

It begins with a laudible cause -- providing healthier foods for SNAP recipients. Many convenience stores accept SNAP benefits. I once worked at a convenience store when they were Food Stamps. People would send their kids to buy a candy bar with a food stamp dollar. Part of this is giving the kid a treat. The other part is that change under a dollar for food stamps was given in coins, so a dollar food stamp used to buy an 18 cent candy bar (the price at the time) yielded about 80 cents of cash which could be spent on cigarettes (57 cents a pack) or other non-food items.

So it appears that Congress included changes in the 2014 Farm Bill (note this was under a Republican Congress). These changes mean retailers must "offer(s) for sale, on a continuous basis, a variety of at least 7 foods in each of the 4 categories of staple foods specified", these staples being meat/poultry/fish, dairy, bread/cereals, and vegetables/fruit.

So USDA proposed new rules. I haven't found the actual rules (just the response to comments linked above) but it appears the rules might have required that, for instance, 7 types of "meats, poultry, or fish" meant 7 different species (e.g. beef, pork, chicken, turkey, cod, salmon, and tuna). Complaints were apparently made that stores would have to carry lamb and duck. As the USDA response says, what did Congress mean when they said 7 types? Could canned chicken, canned tuna, beef jerky, and turkey jerky count as four items? How processed or fresh must food be to count as a "staple" food? Can ground beef and steaks count as two types of perishable meats or do they count as one because both are from cows?

Similar questions about vegetables lead to the claim stores will have to sell kale.

As a sometime shopper at convenience stores, the typical convenience store will not meet the new law unless they are very broadly interpreted (e.g. meat sticks, jerky, etc. counting as different types of meat). On the other hand, some of the stores in question in poor areas are not snacks only convenience stores but small grocery stores which have a limited selection. They may include some fresh foods (e.g. apples and bananas) but not enough variety to meet the new law.

So now the blame game begins. The new rules are in the law, meaning Congress mandated them. Yet close to half of Congress is demanding that USDA not implement the new regulations. The obvious solution is for Congress to amend the law to remove the new provisions if they are that onerous. Yet passing such a law leaves members of Congress vulnerable to the claim they are anti-nutrition or anti-health.

So the political process continues. Congress passes a feel good law. An agency attempts to implement that law. Interest groups complain and are joined by members of Congress, demanding that the agency not made these harmful changes. The agency argues it is just following the law.

It would be nice if fresh, healthy foods were available to all. To some extent they are but poor people don't buy them. There are any number of reasons and any number of solutions given. Food Stamps (or their modern equivalent) will continue to be used for junk food and sugary kids cereals. But it's clear from the USDA's current exercise that there's no simple solution to the problem.

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