683 Stores Barred From U.S. Food Stamp Program : Social services: Agriculture secretary announces move as part of a fraud crackdown. He says many of the outlets were merely fronts for redeeming coupons.
As part of a nationwide crackdown on fraud and abuse, the U.S. Department of Agriculture removed 683 stores in Los Angeles County from eligibility to participate in the food stamp program.
Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman, who made the announcement Thursday at a news conference in Los Angeles, said investigators who took part in a two-week sweep late last month found food stamps redeemed illegally at liquor stores, restaurants and food stores that were merely fronts.
“Many do not stock an adequate supply of the wholesome, nutritious, affordable food that the food stamp program is meant to provide,” he said of the outlets.
Nearly a third of the 2,100 stores inspected in the sweep were dropped from the program. No major grocery chains were involved. Investigators targeted so-called mom-and-pop operations with annual revenues of less than $100,000.
Most of the stores eliminated from the program were in the county’s poor urban areas where the need is greatest, officials said.
Food stamps also have become a medium of exchange for cash to buy drugs, they say, and some stores are more than willing to cooperate for a profit.
“Those profiting from food stamps are literally stealing food out of the mouths of children and needy families,” said Sharon Levinson, the USDA’s regional food and consumer service administrator.
She said that some stores inspected were merely fronts. The USDA referred 104 of the 683 cases in Los Angeles County for criminal prosecution. The county has about 5,400 stores licensed to accept food stamps.
“Some of the stores had food products that were covered with dust, cans that were bulging, sticking to the shelves,” she said. “This is inventory that has not been turned over in years.”
Roughly $70 million worth of food stamps are issued each month to about a million county residents, according to officials.
Glickman said the Department of Agriculture is working on possible solutions, including a debit card system for recipients. It also will start a certification process that allows the USDA to check out stores before allowing them to accept food stamps, he said.
In the past, Glickman said, regulations for certification of stores were lax.
The recent crackdown is part of an intensive review by the USDA nationwide.
If proposed cuts in federal food stamp and welfare programs are enacted, Glickman added, fewer people will be able to qualify for the stamps. The effort to tighten up on violators is part of an attempt to make the program more efficient.
“We hope to get more bang for the buck,” he said.
Two weeks ago, Glickman announced the removal of more than 750 ineligible stores in seven cities nationwide. He also recently announced the arrests, indictments and convictions of nearly 200 people nationwide on food-stamp fraud and trafficking charges.
“It’s a crime of greed,” said USDA Inspector General Roger Viadero, who joined Glickman at the news conference. “The only one who gets hurt on this is the poor guy on the bottom.”