Investigation: Companies taking advantage of EBT on Valentine's Day

Investigation: Companies taking advantage of EBT on Valentine's Day

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - People have been fighting about this on my Facebook page for the past three days: Valentine gift baskets, with stickers that read "EBT gladly accepted," or a vase marked "food stamp eligible."

Every year, the SNAP program is ripped off to the tune of $75 to $100 million. Don't blame it all on the recipients of this program. Sometimes, as we found out, it's greedy companies trying to make a fast buck.

Valentine's Day is the season of love. Tradition dictates that flowers must be purchased - preferably red roses. In fact, Americans will spend more than $1.9 billion on roses this year.

Candy is also a big part of this equation. $1.6 billion will be spent on that. But as retailers try to squeeze every nickel they can out of this holiday, they've started marketing to people who can least afford it: people on public assistance.

For those that don't know, that "EBT gladly accepted" sticker means you can buy it using your SNAP benefits - what we used to call food stamps. An EBT card is the delivery method, much like a debit card, that's reloaded every month with your benefits.

Don't be outraged. According to Social Services, this Valentine's gift basket and similar Valentines gifts can be purchased with your EBT card, but there's a catch: as long as the value of the food products in them is more than 50 percent of the total purchase price, you can purchase it with SNAP.

So, if that's the rule, the Valentine's gift I purchased at a grocery store for almost $13 should have at least $6.50 worth of candy in it. The problem is that it doesn't. I was able to purchase 1.5-ounce Hershey's bars in bulk online for about 33 cents per ounce. In the bottom of the vase, there are 15 mini candy bars that I bought online for 19 cents per ounce. Let's break it down:

For five Hershey's bars, I paid about 52 cents apiece, or $2.60. The 15 bite-sized candy bars were about 10.2 cents per bar, totaling $1.62. That makes the grand total $4.22 -- about 32.5 percent of the total purchase price and not the required 50 percent.

"It doesn't appear to be in compliance with the guidelines the food and nutrition services issued," said Tom Steinhauser with the Virginia Department of Social Services.

Steinhauser gets complaint calls all the time about the misuse of EBT cards. While his department delivers the benefits, it's the federal government that polices food stamps - specifically the U.S. Department of Agriculture. After Steinhauser heard how cheaply I was able to replicate the candy in the Valentine gift, he said he knew something was wrong.

"Then in my estimation, that is not an allowable purchase and it should not have those stickers on it," he said.

That vase wasn't a fluke. Remember the $5 EBT-marked Valentine's basket? It's mostly packaging, with a Valentine's picture frame and card. The candy? 15 small pieces of hard candy that I bought for $1.08. I notified the USDA about this apparent abuse and received a statement that reads in part:

"If you will give us the store name and location, USDA will contact the retailer to ensure proper use of SNAP benefits are understood."

As for Steinhauser, he admits this is all very suspicious, but suggested it needs to be investigated further.

Some of these EBT-approved items can be found at Kroger or the Dollar Store, but don't be quick to blame the stores. The people who produce these goods and sell it to the stores are the ones responsible. Those chain stores sell them with the understanding that they are food stamp eligible, even though often they're not.

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