WOONSOCKET – It was deja vu all over again for Miguel Pichardo as the cyclical wave of first-of-the-month SNAP shoppers washed over his tiny ethnic market on Arnold Street.
The April 1 sell-a-thon was the first since the Washington Post, a month ago, used International Market as the springboard for a disturbingly blunt expose of the critical role the SNAP program plays in propping up the city’s ailing economy.
The story, which dovetailed with the release of the controversial “Block Report” chronicling widespread SNAP abuse in Rhode Island, renewed calls for tighter controls on the program and raised questions about whether it’s grown too generous. As Woonsocket Mayor Leo T. Fontaine told TV interviewer Stuart Varney on the Fox Network, “Nationwide, this is a debate that’s going on...this comes down to a point of whether we’re serving a need or whether we’re creating a need.”
But Pichardo offered a vigorous defense of his customers this week, most of whom are SNAP beneficiaries who pay with electronic banking cards, or EBTs. They wouldn’t need food stamps if there were enough good jobs for them in the area, he says.
“I know people need help,” says Pichardo, in his heavily Dominican-flavored accent, “but all over this town, this city, they need opportunities to work. I got four little kids, three months to nine years old. What’s going to happen to them when they’re 25...I don’t want to see them on welfare.”
As he stood on the far side of a Plexiglas shield at the counter, the aroma of freshly baked empanadas, a kind of deep-fried pocket of meat-stuffed pastry, wafted through the market, where Pichardo employs four people, including two butchers. The International Market sells many products mainstream shoppers would find familiar, but it also carries a bevy of Latino favorites, like fresh calabaza squash and papayas; Malta, a carbonated beverage that tastes like molasses; and chicharrones, a deep-fried wheat product similar to a potato chips.
The Post story described how, in the hours leading up to the first day of every month, Pichardo and other merchants in the area stockpile meats, juice and other foodstuffs in anticipation of the replenishing of SNAP benefits. The story described how customers waited in line for the store to open, eager to raid the shelves of its provisions with the aid of their monthly infusion of SNAP benefits.
With some 13,752 SNAP recipients in Woonsocket, or one in every three residents, the story portrayed the “monthly financial windfall” of food stamps as a crucial prop for the economy of a city on the verge of bankruptcy.
Written by Eli Saslow, the story called the continuing national expansion of the SNAP program “the lasting scar” of the recession, “a federal program that began as a last resort for a few million hungry people grown into an economic lifeline for entire towns.”
While Pichardo vouches for the veracity of most of the story, he complained that the Post exaggerated the number of people who come to his store when the monthly SNAP cycle begins. Lines outside his door? “It’s not true,” he says. Picking up a red crayon from the checkout counter, he says, “It’s like calling something blue when it’s red, like this. Why do they do it?”
The story triggered dozens of online comments from both defenders and detractors of SNAP, which stands for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
“Those who find it necessary to put their self righteous two cents in regarding food stamp recipients should try to survive on the whole $200 the average person gets each month,” said one. “See then how 'good' or 'easy' they have it. There's no free ride. Most would rather have a job and be able to eat what they want and feed their children better instead of macaroni and cheese six times a week.”
Another said, “Those folks in Woonsocket, if they have a skill, need to move somewhere besides Woonsocket where that skills is need. But I don’t believe we the taxpayers should pay for their decision to stay in a place where there are no jobs.”
Pichardo says he’s gotten little feedback first-hand, good or bad. But if the attention has had any effect at all on business, it’s probably been a slight negative.
On Monday, he said, other media outlets hopped on the Washington Post’s coattails and came to the store to take a reading on the SNAP thermometer.
When customers see cameras and well-dressed individuals in suits carrying notebooks and microphones, they get scared, says Pichardo. They mistake them for the police and think twice about coming in.
A native of the Dominican Republican who moved here in the 1980s, Pichardo, 53, first settled in New Hampshire, but eventually moved to Providence, where he opened his first convenience stores. He’s been doing business in one location or another on Arnold Street for nearly a decade now.
He says it’s easier to make a living around here in the grocery business than it was in Providence because there’s “less competition.” That includes three similar stores, including two others that cater to a Latino clientele and an Asian grocer, all within a quarter-mile stretch of Arnold Street.
Some say these tiny downtown mini-marts and convenience stores fill a crucial niche in the food-supply chain for denizens of the inner-city. The United States Department of Agriculture says Woonsocket encompasses one of only three census tracts in the state that the agency has proclaimed “food deserts” because they lack a traditional supermarket that offers easy access to a wide range of healthy foods, especially produce.
“They meet a need,” says Mathew Wojcik, the economic development director of the city of Woonsocket. “They meet the convenience need – because who wants to drive to the supermarket to get a gallon of milk? – but they’re also serving the needs of those who do their weekly, bi-weekly or monthly shopping, which is somewhat of an unusual role for these smaller stores.”
The city recognized the dearth of food vendors within its borders recently by deregulating certain retail districts that used to allow construction of supermarkets only with special waivers from the Zoning Board. The supermarket-friendly zones now include the French Worsted mill complex that was razed recently to make way for a new retail plaza on Hamlet Avenue.
Setting aside the debate over SNAP, Wojcik says stores like International Market are thriving in the city because they have a sound business model. They know their target customers and they control their stocks accordingly.
Usually small stores can’t afford to match the prices at the bigger supermarkets, but a businessman like Pichardo can cut his costs by buying in bulk once a month because he knows he’s going to sell in volume, at least briefly.
“If all business startups had as sound a business model there’d be far fewer failures,” said Wojcik.
Meanwhile, state officials say they have begun taking action to crack down on the abuses detailed in the block report, which examined waste, fraud and abuse in both the SNAP and Medicare programs. Among other things, the 16-page report said it identified numerous fraud and cheating schemes that were being committed by both beneficiaries and retailers, including benefits sent to state prisoners and deceased individuals. In just one public housing system, the report found that $1.7 million in benefits were not reported to the Providence Housing Authority, as required.
The report also claimed that benefits were still being collected for long periods of time after their eligibility had lapsed because the state was doing a poor job of managing its records. Gov. Lincoln Chafee’s press office did not return a telephone call yesterday asking for an update on what’s being done to address the issues raised in the report.