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Do convenience stores accepting food assistance funds offer enough healthy choices?

Published: Jul. 23, 2021 at 3:55 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 23, 2021 at 8:35 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - It’s a struggle for many Ohioans to put fresh food on the table, especially those living in rural areas.

19 Investigates found gas stations and dollar stores are sometimes their only options.

We examined what counts as healthy food for people who depend on food stamps, checking to see whether local stores accepting government money stock enough healthy options.

If you’ve ever wondered why that lonely banana is sitting by itself on a gas station counter, there is a reason why.

They may accept SNAP benefits, known as food stamps, and must meet certain requirements.

The USDA defines “staple foods” as the basic foods that make up a significant portion of someone’s diet.

They do not include prepared foods or heated foods in this category.

The four staple food categories are:

  1. Fruits or vegetables (includes canned items)
  2. Meat, poultry or fish (includes canned tuna)
  3. Dairy products (includes grated cheese)
  4. Breads or cereals

Stores must regularly stock at least three types of each staple food category in order to qualify to accept SNAP benefits.

19 Investigates found tater-tots qualify as vegetables, after all, they are in the potato family—and beef jerky and chicken nuggets count as meat.

They may not be the healthiest options, but according to the USDA, they’re good enough.

19 Investigates went undercover to check some stores accepting federal funding to see if they’re stocking enough of these required foods.

Experts said some stores barely meet requirements.

We checked three stores in Holmes County, where 11% of people are food insecure.

This included one specialty store, a gas station convenience store and a health food store.

Every store we checked in Millersburg was in compliance with the USDA guidelines we listed above.

We discovered finding fresh food isn’t a problem in Holmes County.

That is unlike some other rural areas, where people may have to drive more than 10 minutes to get to a grocery store or a gas station for food.

This part of Appalachia is unique. It’s Amish country too, and that’s a big driver of the local economy.

The stores we checked into are essential for groceries, but they’re also a big stop for visitors.

Lavern Miller checks the produce at the store he owns in Millersburg, Trail Side Deli.
Lavern Miller checks the produce at the store he owns in Millersburg, Trail Side Deli.(WOIO)

One of the stores we stopped into was Trail Side Deli.

“We have like 35 different kinds of meats and 35 different kinds of cheeses.” said owner Lavern Miller.

His cheeses are made locally in Amish country.

Miller knows his customers.

“Just meeting people and making friends to people, that’s huge to us,” Miller said.

Whether they live here or are just visiting, they want fresh, healthy food.

That’s not hard for Miller to get to his store.

Some people travel for miles to get their groceries here.

Trail Side Deli accepts food stamps.

People who depend on them can get more than just pre-packaged, canned food here.

“People come in with it, we honor it, we help them with it. To me it was important to serve those type of people,” Miller said.

Stores can bring in a lot of money if they accept food stamps.

But many advocates report they don’t offer enough healthy choices.

A few years ago, Congress passed a law to increase healthy food options for people who depend on food stamps.

But our national investigative team found there still haven’t been any changes enforced.

You can watch their story here.

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