D.C. food stamp paybacks due for power outage losses

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The D.C. government will pay food-stamp recipients who say they lost food because of recent power outages, officials said — even though the majority of stores doing business in food stamps sell almost no perishable foods.

“A family might get $400 a month,” and if they claim $400 of food was lost and Pepco verifies that they lost power for any amount of time, “we will pay that,” Deborah Carroll, a Department of Human Services administrator, told The Times.

Recipients of the program only need to provide an estimated dollar amount of food spoiled; receipts or itemizations are not required. “The law does not require us to validate the amount,” Ms. Carroll said. Affected recipients must make their request by 8 p.m. Wednesday at any food-stamp service center.

“The maximum amount of replacement cannot exceed the resident’s food-stamp allotment in June,” read a July 3 memo from Ms. Carroll.

Half of the 457 stores in the District that accept food stamps, formally known as the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), are corner stores or bodegas, which do nearly all of their business selling canned, bottled and packaged foods, and some of which do not even have refrigerators, a new analysis by The Washington Times of data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and store visits showed.

They’re stores like the MLK Market in Southeast Washington, whose healthy offerings are rice, cereal, pasta and whole milk, only the latter of which is perishable. Down the street, at MLK Convenience, is what passes for a cornucopia of fresh food — though none requires refrigeration: The store had seven bananas and one basket of onions and potatoes. More than one-third of its floor space is devoted to varieties of potato chips.

An additional quarter of the stores are more established chains that also sell hardly any perishable food, chiefly CVS, Rite-Aid and 7-Eleven.

“I can imagine there just being a lot of confusion,” Michele Simon, director of the policy group Eat Drink Politics, said of the department’s invitation for undocumented claims. “They’re not making sure you really bought the food.”

But keeping better track of how and where food-stamp dollars are spent in general overshadows money lost to fraud in the temporary program, she said.

Eighteen stores, including weekly farmers markets, do specialize in poultry, meat or vegetables. Eight percent of the District’s food-stamp vendors are major supermarkets that sell ample supplies of food that could perish in an electrical outage, and an additional 4 percent are smaller grocery stores.

An additional 17 seafood establishments accept food stamps, such as AA Bee, where snow-crab legs cost $11.99 per pound.

The remainder are gas stations and liquor stores. At the Benning Road Shell, which accepts food stamps, in addition to an overwhelming majority of junk food, for sale are Campbell’s Chunky soup, carrots and corn — all in cans. No milk is available.

Food stamps can be spent on goods ranging from candy to steak, and convenience stores have spent millions of dollars lobbying Congress to ensure that people can redeem food stamps nearly anywhere edibles are sold and on any type of food but hot meals, despite the objections of critics who say the dearth of nutritional foods at such establishments undermines the SNAP program’s very name, The Times reported last month.

Grocers in low-end neighborhoods concede that they do not stock fresh produce and other expirable foods, saying their small orders and low turnover make it impossible.

“There’s a dearth of variety,” said Sylvia Brown, an advisory neighborhood commissioner in the city’s Ward 7. Many recipients in the inner city “are not familiar with a variety of food products and being able to cook for yourself.”

Pepco said foods will stay frozen for up to two days in a freezer if the door remain closed, and that it can be protected longer with ice in a cooler. It could not provide a number of people who lost power for two days or more.

Following the storms that left 64,000 D.C. residents without power at its peak earlier this month, the Department of Parks and Recreation separately distributed free meals for those affected.

© Copyright 2014 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

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