Maryland lawmakers seek relief for crab shacks from food stamps rule

Maryland Democrats in Congress asked the Trump administration on Thursday to grant crab shacks temporary relief from a new rule that is preventing many from accepting food stamps for steamed crabs.

Officials warned carryout shops in the Baltimore area last year that they could no longer accept food stamps for crabs unless they sold them live or raw. The shops were also told that they had to provide a variety of food staples, not just the Chesapeake Bay delicacy, to qualify for food stamp transactions.

The rule went into effect in January. Now, as the weather warms and the appetite for crab increases, retailers are feeling the effects.

“We’re all hurt by it,” Scott Schoenberger, owner of Waverly Crabs on Greenmount Avenue, said Thursday. “Right now it affects us probably about 30 percent. That and the rain every weekend hurts every crab house.”

Members of the state’s congressional delegation wrote to the Food and Nutrition Service — part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture — seeking a “grace period of at least six months.”

Under the rules, retailers can accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program vouchers — the formal name for food stamps — only if less than half of their sales are prepared foods.

If more than 50 percent are prepared items — such as steamed crabs — then the retailers are classified as restaurants, which are not permitted to take food stamps.

Another problem, the lawmakers say, is that the changes require the outlets to submit sales records to verify eligibility.

“These are mom and pops — they don’t have sophisticated equipment,” Rep. C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger said Thursday.

“We want to ask USDA if they can give us time to get the data,” the Baltimore County Democrat said. Otherwise, he said, “this might shut down some of these places.”

A six-month period, the lawmakers said, would allow the crab shacks time to determine whether they cross the “Restaurant Threshold.”

In the letter Thursday to Patricia Dombroski, the New Jersey-based administrator of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Office of the Food and Nutrition Service, the lawmakers asked for “detailed guidance” on the sorts of inventory and sales records the outlets are required to provide.

“We support the intent of this rule to ensure SNAP recipients’ access to a wide variety of nutritious food, as well as reduce opportunities for waste, fraud, and abuse within the program,” they wrote.

“It has come to our attention, however, that this rule has the potential to have an unforeseen adverse impact on the viability of small business seafood retailers and the crab fishing industry in Maryland, as well as the ability for SNAP recipients to access high-quality, locally-sourced, and nutritious seafood.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Ben Cardin and Chris Van Hollen and Reps. Ruppersberger, John Sarbanes and John Delaney. All are Democrats.

Rep. Andy Harris, the sole Republican in the Maryland delegation, did not sign the letter, but said he is paying attention to the issue.

"We are working on a case-by-case basis to make sure that our crab houses, which are small businesses, are not being unfairly singled out for compliance with SNAP regulations,” he said in a statement.

A spokesman for Dombroski said she was unavailable for comment Thursday. Spokesman Chris Kelly said the administrator had not seen the letter.

Food stamp use has been growing in recent years as participation in the traditional federal welfare program has declined. More than 40 million people nationwide are on food stamps, including more than 200,000 in Baltimore — almost a third of the population — as recently as 2014.

The Food and Nutrition Service began demanding stores provide more information about their sales in October. The agency said last month that 43 city shops had since lost their authorization under the SNAP program.

Fourteen of the stores did not respond when regulators initiated the food stamp reauthorization process, officials said. Two began the process but didn’t cooperate with the information request, and two failed to meet eligibility criteria. The other 25 stores did not report any food stamp sales.

Stores may accept food stamps only for crabs that are sold cold, and must obtain a majority of their revenue from sales of a mix of four groups of food staples: fruits and vegetables; dairy products; meat, poultry or fish; and breads and cereals.

“If the whole business is selling steamed crab (whether the crab is steamed before or after purchase) then that establishment probably meets the definition of a restaurant, and then the establishment would not be an eligible SNAP retailer and you could not redeem SNAP benefits there,” officials said in a statement.

Store owners say they were told that if they didn’t meet the requirements, they had to stop accepting food stamps starting in January.

jebarker@baltsun.com

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