City officials warn of impact as corner stores must start paying for equipment to accept food stamps

The federal government plans to shift the cost of accepting food stamps to retailers in the coming weeks, a move that Baltimore officials and anti-hunger advocates said Tuesday could make it harder for some families to buy groceries.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and her administration are working with advocacy groups to inform merchants of the change and to help them prepare. About a third of the city's population relies on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, known as food stamps.

While chain supermarkets and larger grocery stores should be positioned to absorb the change, officials are concerned about the city's 800 corner stores.

Beginning Oct. 25, retailers will be required to pay for the equipment to process the SNAP cards. Officials worry that some merchants could stop accepting the cards.

"When I think about the number of families in Baltimore that use SNAP benefits, it concerns me that there might be an interruption in their access to food," the mayor said.

Congress approved the change in February as part of the farm bill.

Neither the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP, nor the state Department of Human Resources, which runs the program in Maryland, provided information Tuesday on the amount the government would save by requiring retailers to bear the cost.

Sung Kim, who manages the E-Z Food Market in the Park Circle neighborhood of Northwest Baltimore, sees the move as a way for the federal government to bully merchants. Kim said food stamp customers account for about 25 percent of his business, and he can't afford to lose the sales.

Kim said he has signed up with a vendor to provide equipment for $75 a month so he can continue to accept SNAP cards.

"When you look at it nationwide, it's a ton of money," Kim said. "Government is trying to bully the retailers without warning."

He said the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service has warned retailers against passing transaction fees on to customers or requiring minimum amounts for SNAP purchases.

James Gaymon, 67, stopped by the E-Z Food Market to satisfy a sweet tooth Tuesday. He used his food stamp card to buy candy orange slices and was relieved to hear that the store, which is about a block and a half from his house, will keep accepting food stamps.

"It's very important to me," Gaymon said. "I'm too old to do a whole lot of walking."

Holly Freishtat, Baltimore's food policy director, said the federal government has tried to alert retailers to the change — which is coming as early as Monday in some parts of the country — but that more needs to be done.

"We want to make sure they follow all the instructions ... and get the machines and contracts all lined up so they don't lose any sales and no SNAP recipients have any lapses in their ability to get groceries," Freishtat said.

She said city officials are working with anti-hunger activists to get the word out, and contacting groups such as the Korean-American Grocers and Licensed Beverage Association of Maryland, or KAGRO. Freishtat said she's not concerned about the city's 45 grocery stores, because most are affiliated with large companies that are more likely to be aware of the changes to the farm bill.

Nonprofits and farmers' markets are exempt from the changes, she said.

A spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores said corner stores provide regular access to food that many families don't get elsewhere. Spokesman Jeff Lenard said government officials should carefully evaluate the impact of their policy decisions on the businesses.

"To get to the grocery stores, it's often a couple of bus transfers with kids," Lenard said. "Corner stores can provide that bridge."

Baltimore Sun reporter John Fritze contributed to this article.

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