Astoria grocer fights SNAP decision

Samuel McDaniel, the owner of the Astoria Downtown Market, has sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture after being excluded from the food stamp program.

Samuel McDaniel has tried to put the past behind him.

Eleven years ago, he was convicted of felony delivery of marijuana and psychedelic mushrooms in Lane County. After he untangled his legal troubles, he moved to the North Coast and took over the Astoria Downtown Market, a small grocery on Commercial Street.

McDaniel knows his criminal record will always follow him, but he did not expect it would disqualify him from honoring food stamps for low-income customers at the grocery.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture ruled that McDaniel lacks business integrity because of the drug conviction and permanently denied his application to participate in the food stamp program. He lost an administrative review of the decision, so he filed a lawsuit against the USDA in federal court in Portland in July to try to reverse the ruling.

“It has nothing to do with the business,” McDaniel said. “It has something to do with what happened to me 11 years ago when I was 22, and I’m 33 now.”

Safeguards to prevent abuse of the nation’s $63 billion food stamp program empower the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service to deny applications for retailers convicted of crimes like fraud, embezzlement, theft or forgery, as well as violations of consumer protection or business licensing laws.

The Food and Nutrition Service found in McDaniel’s case that a crime committed during a private transaction, like a drug deal, reflects on his business integrity. The distinction is important, since the USDA has lost in federal court when it denied an application from a retailer convicted of marijuana possession.

Permanent denials for lack of business integrity are relatively rare in the sprawling Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as SNAP, or food stamps.

In the fiscal year that ended last September, the Food and Nutrition Service permanently denied 66 retailers for business integrity and issued time-limited denials to 31 others. The government approved applications for 23,421 retailers and reauthorized another 44,764. Across the country, more than 263,000 retailers are authorized to participate in the food stamp program.

Most food stamps — 82 percent — are redeemed by consumers at supermarkets or superstores, but small grocery stores like the Astoria Downtown Market have a role.

“These guys are the gap-fillers,” said Andrew Tapp, a Florida attorney who is helping McDaniel. “So if you start limiting them, then you’re having huge problems with what the underserved community actually gets for food.”

Tapp, who specializes in food stamp-related legal disputes, argues that a past drug conviction a decade before McDaniel owned the grocery is not reasonably related to his business integrity today. The government’s screening of retailers is meant to uncover past fraud in business-related activity, he said, not drug offenses.

“This disqualification is tantamount to a jail sentence in one state for a speeding ticket incurred in another state,” Tapp wrote to the administrative review officer.

McDaniel, who took over the grocery last summer, thinks his lawsuit could help other small grocers who have been denied under similar circumstances.

“It should help other people that get into situations like me that are just trying to give up on their past and do good for themselves and their community,” he said.

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