Belfast Variety on High Street in Belfast. Credit: Abigail Curtis / BDN

BELFAST, Maine — The owners of Belfast Variety are taking the United States Department of Agriculture to federal court after the agency determined that the store would no longer be able to participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for at least six months.

The USDA’s final decision, issued April 21, is something that owners Muhammad Ahsan and Nasir Hameed disagree with, according to lawyer Aaron Fethke. The pair purchased the Belfast Variety on High Street — known locally as the “BV” — from  longtime owners Ron and Sharon Benjamin last year.

Along with groceries including meat and produce, the store does a brisk business in gasoline, hardware supplies, prepared food, beer, wine and liquor. As of last spring, the store served 1,000 customers a day.

“I believe that the store has been participating in this program since it was actual food stamps,” Fethke said. “We don’t think there’s ever been an issue before. We’re surprised there is one now.”

Ahsan and Hameed applied for SNAP authorization on June 7, 2021, according to court documents. A USDA inspector came to do a store visit on July 31, 2021, which was a busy summer Saturday. Fethke believes the inspector “flashed a badge” and store workers weren’t sure what to do. They asked the inspector to return when their manager was present.

But the inspector didn’t come back. Instead, the USDA asked the store owners to send the agency invoices and receipts in order to verify their inventory and make sure the store met program requirements.

“That process, without the benefit of counsel, got confusing,” Fethke said. “Some things got submitted late. All the documentation wasn’t done with the best efficiency.”

To be eligible for for SNAP authorization, the Belfast Variety has to show that it carries sufficient varieties of food in four staple categories: bread or cereals, dairy products, fruit and vegetables and meat, poultry and fish. Store owners submitted 172 receipts to verify this, according to the final agency decision, but only one was from the required timeframe. The agency found that Belfast Variety met the requirements for fruits and vegetables, breads or cereals and meat, poultry or fish. But it was deficient in dairy products.

“Appellant does not meet the dairy products staple food category and, as such, does not meet the eligibility requirements,” the agency said in its decision.

The store also could be eligible if staple food sales make up more than 50 percent of their total gross retail sales. But in the case of the Belfast Variety, staple food products make up only 8 percent of their sales and so the store was withdrawn for participation as a SNAP retail store.

Fethke said that the USDA’s decision isn’t good news for Belfast Variety, but it’s likely to be worse news for the folks who use their SNAP benefits there. The owners estimate that at least 20 percent of their customers use those benefits, and that’s why they’re disputing the decision, he said.

“It’s not going to make or break the store,” the lawyer said. “The biggest reason is that [the owners] feel this is something very important to the community, and [they] want to offer it. It hurts them, but more, I think, it hurts all of the people who won’t be able to use benefits there for at least six months or longer.”

According to one Waldo County expert in food insecurity, reducing options for people who have benefits can be problematic, especially in a time of rising inflation. Cherie Merrill, the executive director of the Belfast Soup Kitchen, said that more and more people are struggling to contend with higher costs and that reducing SNAP options is never good.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in food insecurity, due to inflation and rising costs of everything,” Merrill said. “Food is the one place where people tend to have to skimp when they’re covering everything else. I would say that not being able to use SNAP benefits is detrimental … for people in that neighborhood.”

Fethke said that the owners of Belfast Variety had a choice. They could have either let the USDA’s decision stand and wait for six months to be able to reapply, or they could ask for a judicial review. That is what they are doing by taking the matter to federal court.

“We’re hopeful they will reinstate,” the lawyer said. “There are a bunch of people who are going to have to, very likely, travel further to get these benefits, at potentially higher prices. It’s something that my clients are not willing to just lay down for.”