Mary Mervis Delicatessen used to serve a daily rush of 1,000 customers, who lined up for the Lexington Market stall’s meats and cheeses, corned beef sandwiches and shrimp salad. But traffic, already down to about 400 people a day since the Freddie Gray riots, has plummeted by at least half again since the century-old deli lost food stamp eligibility.
“People don’t come to the market because we can’t accept food stamps anymore,” said Elliot Bodner, the deli owner.
The deli is among a group of Baltimore public market vendors who have lost or are in danger of losing eligibility to take payments through SNAP, the federal supplemental nutrition assistance program for low-income people. Because of changes phased in over the last several years and heavier scrutiny by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the program, market merchants such as delis, bakeries and crab shacks no longer meet federal requirements for vendors.
“This is the west side of Baltimore, these are the poorest of poor people,” many of whom rely on public assistance, Bodner said. “The public markets in Baltimore are where true Baltimore people shop and have shopped for hundreds of years. We need to have food stamps in the public markets.”
Responding to pleas from vendors who are losing their ability to accept food stamps, several members of Maryland’s Congressional delegation fired off a letter Monday to the head of USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service asking the agency to look into the withdrawal of SNAP eligibility for several market retailers and to help them.
The delegation members, including senators Benjamin L. Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and representatives Elijah E. Cummings, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger and John P. Sarbanes, said Lexington Market operates under a model that does not exist in other cities in a historically low-income, food- and transportation-scarce area.
“It is critical to have local retailers that provide healthy, accessible food for residents of the area — as well as the city as a whole — through the SNAP program,” said the letter to Brandon Lipps, administrator of the Food and Nutrition Service. “A number of retailers that operate under the umbrella of Lexington Market have already been denied SNAP eligibility. It is also our understanding that additional retailers within the market are undergoing review and that they may also be deemed ineligible.”
Merchants like Bodner want the market treated for eligibility purposes as a single supermarket, because they serve the same purpose, even though they’re independent merchants.
Bodner, only the deli’s third owner since a widow named Mary Mervis set up a mayonnaise stall at the market in 1913 to support her children, said he always has been able to accept food stamps for everything but hot food. He complied with initial rule changes by shifting his product mix to add more food staples. But under subsequent rule changes, he no longer qualifies.
After exhausting his appeals to the USDA, Bodner returned the machine that read the electronic SNAP payment cards in April. He fired a manager of 22 years and another 17-year worker and worries about his own future. He also wonders what options remain for his West Baltimore customers who rely on Lexington Market as their neighborhood grocery.
Food stamps have not covered hot foods since 1977, meaning that restaurants generally are not eligible to participate. Businesses with more than half their sales in prepared foods are considered restaurants.
The latest rule changes started taking effect in December 2016 at the end of the Obama administration. They closed a loophole for foods sold cold and heated after purchase and changed the definitions of staple foods and retail food stores. They also increased the amount of perishable food retailers must have available and boosted requirements for the variety of items in four staple food categories.
“These changes will improve SNAP households' access to a variety of healthy food options, and they reflect the agency's ongoing commitments to provide vital nutrition assistance to the most vulnerable Americans, protect taxpayer dollars, and build on aggressive efforts to ensure program integrity,” the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service said in the final published rule.
A spokesperson for the USDA declined to comment further on changes to the SNAP program or their impact on vendors.
Under changes instituted by the Trump administration in October 2017, market merchants are considered restaurants and ineligible for SNAP if more than half of sales come from prepared foods, defined as hot or cold foods not intended for home preparation or home consumption; heated foods, which are cooked or heated by the retailer before or after the purchase; or from a category including snacks, baked goods, candy and ice cream.
These changes governing are part of the administration’s broader push to tighten work requirements for recipients of federal aid and root out fraud.
Market vendors now must get more than half of their retail sales from the sale of staple foods, such as fruits or vegetables, meat, poultry or fish, dairy products, and breads or cereals. To renew their license, retailers must file extensive documentation of their sales.
For Bodner, the changes meant an end to customers using food stamps to buy deli meat by the pound because it’s pre-cooked.
“If a customer comes up and wants a quarter-pound of turkey or a half-pound of ham, you have to buy the whole turkey raw and cook it at home,” he said.
The food stamp loss comes as vendors anticipate the city’s $40 million overhaul of one of the country’s oldest public markets. The city has picked Seawall Development to build a modern, warehouse-style building and plaza on the site between Paca and Eutaw streets.
“The vision for Lexington Market’s new facility is to continue to offer as much affordable, fresh food as possible, maximizing working with the SNAP program,” said Jon Constable, the project lead for Seawall. “This is a public market, and public markets are set up to provide affordable, fresh food for the public.”
Of the changes to SNAP, he said, “we are very concerned about it and in full support of current vendors and future vendors.”
Holly Freishtat, Baltimore city’s food policy director, estimates that about 10 to 15 stalls in Lexington Market sell staple foods, while fewer than 10 are either bakeries or delis. Most of the remaining stalls are considered carryouts.
Other city public markets have relatively few vendors that could be affected by SNAP changes, estimated Freishtat, who works on food policy issues with retailers and others through the city’s planning department. Hollins Market, which has mostly meat and produce vendors, has just one deli; Northeast Market has about eight bakeries and delis; and Avenue Market has just one bakery.
“The vendors who sell primarily staple foods will not be impacted, and we’re going to work with vendors and have worked with them to make sure they comply,” Freishtat said. “When we look at the future of Lexington Market, we are going to ensure that staple foods are there, and those vendors will comply and have SNAP…
“If there is no supermarket near you and you are in a healthy food priority area, you will be able to go to Lexington Market” and use SNAP benefits, she said.
The congressional delegation’s letter asks the USDA for a response by June 28.
“We ask USDA to work with the market and all its retailers, as well as the community, to help ensure that residents can use SNAP benefits in a meaningful and consistent manner,” the letter says.
For Minas and Fannie Houvardas, owners of two Lexington Market bakeries that sell cakes, cookies and donuts, any help may come too late.
The owners of Market Bakery, which the couple opened in 1975, and Buttercup bakery, have lost half their business since they were reclassified as a restaurant and can no longer take food stamps. On a recent morning, only a few customers bought doughnuts and cookies, and the owners lamented lost sales from four cake orders they took but were unable to fill because customers wanted to pay in food stamps. The couple has laid off five of six employees and is considering shutting down one of the two stalls.
“Business is going down by half, because the people shopping the market are low income,” and rely on food stamps, Minas Houvardas said. “If we lose the food stamps, the whole market is the one that’s going to suffer.”