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February 22, 2022

Legislation aims to support small business owners with past criminal convictions

Credit: Frederick News-Post, Allison Novelo and Jordan Anderson

When Altimont Mark Wilks returned to Hagerstown after two decades of incarceration, he realized a lifelong dream of becoming a business owner, opening two convenience stores.

But federal regulations denying him the ability to accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) left his businesses struggling, he said.

Because of his criminal history, the U.S. Department of Agriculture denied Wilks the ability to accept SNAP’s food vouchers at his convenience stores, called Carmen’s Corner Store, in Hagerstown and Frederick. He said he faces monthly losses selling more affordable food items to his low-income customers.

“Our purpose in opening Carmen’s Corner Stores is to bring economic development and food security to disadvantaged communities,” said Wilks. “If Carmen’s Corner Store is unable to accept [SNAP benefits] and provide affordable food and drink to this community, it will be the death blow to my business.”

Rep. David Trone (D-Dist. 6) heard about Wilks’ struggles seeking SNAP authorization from a staff member who had attended the opening of the Hagerstown store in 2019 and followed up by meeting Wilks during a visit to Hagerstown. Now, the pair are working together to overturn the USDA’s regulation, giving business owners with past criminal convictions an opportunity to make a positive impact on their communities.

“We can help folks who’ve had hard times, made a mistake when they were younger, and now want to go out to build a life,” Trone said. “We should support them.”

In January, Trone and Republican Rep. John Katko of New York introduced the SNAP Second Chance Act that would amend the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 to limit the USDA’s authority to reject small business owners with criminal convictions from becoming SNAP vendors.

Trone said current SNAP regulations exacerbate food insecurity in already challenged communities like Frederick and create undue barriers for justice-impacted small business owners hoping to reenter society.

“It hurts low-income neighborhoods and hurts someone like Mark who’s a returning citizen and entrepreneur,” Trone said. “We decided, based on what we heard, we would put together a piece of legislation to change that.”

The legislation may especially benefit rural areas whose residents have low incomes, Trone said, where more stores that accept SNAP benefits will make an impact.

“It’s going to make communities like Frederick and Hagerstown better for a lot of folks,” Trone said. “We’ve got to have programs that can help those folks that have been struggling, and that’s what SNAP benefits do.”

The USDA does not comment on pending legislation, but the department noted restrictions are prescribed by the Food and Nutrition Act.

“When considering whether an applicant retailer may participate in SNAP, the FNA directs the agency to consider factors including the business integrity and reputation of the applicant,” the department said.

Wilks sees the need for affordable food firsthand, he said. Nearly 80 percent of his customers come from low-income backgrounds, he said.

“The community I’m in right now, in Hagerstown, when we started the business, you’d be hard-pressed to find a local hub or just a place for you to find affordable food and beverage,” Wilks said. “Oh, thank God there is more now. But when I started, I really had the aim of being able to provide that.”

In the early months of the pandemic, Wilks hoped the USDA would approve his second attempt to become a SNAP retailer. He said his essential business could have helped families impacted by COVID-19 and the economic shutdown.

Malcolm Furgol, executive director of the Frederick County Health Care Coalition, said SNAP benefits are an important part of increasing financial stability and maintaining the overall health of the community.

“We want our local businesses and retail to be robust and be able to stay in business and to employ people,” Furgol said. “SNAP benefits are an important part of that, because that’s income to their stores from those who would otherwise not be able to shop in those stores.”

While Furgol said local nonprofit organizations are working to keep food banks stocked, they don’t always meet the community’s needs.

“You want to be able to set people up for success and sustainability,” Furgol said. “One of the ways to do that is to give them the tools to feed their own family. SNAP benefits really allow you to do that.”

With safety nets instituted during the pandemic such as rental assistance, stimulus programs and free meals from public schools in Frederick potentially ending soon, Furgol said the community needs a long-term solution to meet the increased need of food access.

In the 2020 fiscal year, over 16,000 people in Frederick were participating in SNAP on average, according to data from the Maryland Department of Human Services.

“If you can’t eat, how can you go to school? How can you work? How can you maintain your health?” Furgol said. “That’s one reason it affects everybody, even those who don’t have SNAP benefits, right? It could effectively reduce the health costs for all.”

Prior to the pandemic, Maryland Hunger Solutions reported in 2017 that statewide participation in the program had been dropping since the last economic recession ending in 2009.

Maryland Hunger Solutions reported an increase in SNAP participation across Maryland in 2020. Every county in the state saw a surge in need, the report said, with Frederick’s neighboring county, Howard, witnessing a tripling of the number of applications.

“Because of the lack of a sustainable income under this current climate, or not having desirable jobs in the community, or opportunities or options, these programs are greatly needed,” said Wilks.

Wilks and Trone expressed optimism for approval of the SNAP Second Chance Act emphasizing the bill’s bipartisan support. The SNAP Second Chance Act was referred to the Subcommittee on Nutrition, Oversight and Department Operations for consideration on Jan. 24.

“I’m proud of not only what we’ve accomplished, and I’ve been given an opportunity to make a change with the SNAP Second Chance Act,” Wilks said. “This is a testament to why I started the business — to make a difference in these communities.”