FOOD-STAMP E-PORTABILITY BILL PASSED BY HOUSE

WASHINGTON (FNS] -- The supermarket industry's desire to allow electronically dispensed food-stamp benefits to be used in almost any state is close to being realized.The House last week approved legislation clearing the way for the portability of electronic food stamps. The Senate last year approved a similar bill. The President is expected to sign the measure.Under the legislation, the federal government

WASHINGTON (FNS] -- The supermarket industry's desire to allow electronically dispensed food-stamp benefits to be used in almost any state is close to being realized.

The House last week approved legislation clearing the way for the portability of electronic food stamps. The Senate last year approved a similar bill. The President is expected to sign the measure.

Under the legislation, the federal government would reimburse retailers and wholesalers up to $500,000 annually to cover the cost of upgrading their electronic food-stamp systems and making them compatible with systems in other states. The U.S. Department of Agriculture would first adopt a uniform national standard for electronic benefit cards. The deadline to employ the standard would be Oct. 1, 2002.

The program would cover the 48 states where supermarkets and wholesalers employ food-stamp technology using magnetic-strip cards. Wyoming and Ohio would be excluded, since retailers there use so-called smart cards, or those with computer chips.

Tim Hammonds, president of the Food Marketing Institute here, said it's good news the electronic-benefits bill has cleared the House. He said the supermarkets that will really benefit from the measure are those located on state borders, citing K-VA-T Food Stores, Abingdon, Va., as an example. The chain has stores in Kentucky, Virginia and Tennessee.

"Many times you'll find a shopper who lives in one state and will go to a store that's convenient, but it's in another state," said Hammonds, who praised the bill's bipartisan support in Congress, as well as support in the states.

Tom Wenning, vice president and general counsel for the National Grocers Association, Reston, Va., said making electronic food stamps portable is a welcome, long-sought change. "We're glad the issue has been resolved," he said.

One supporter of the House bill, Rep. Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, called making electronic food stamps portable a "practical" matter that will save government money and help recipients. However, Stenholm said, retailers shouldn't expect to be reimbursed for other changes in the food-stamp program.

Rep. Robert Goodlatte, R-Va., co-sponsor of the House bill, said portability of benefits is particularly needed so that recipients can avail themselves of sales in neighboring states.

"Why should recipients of food-assistance benefits not be allowed to stretch their dollars in the same way that other consumers do, without regard to state borders ?" asked Goodlatte in comments before the vote.