BELFAST — Belfast Variety owners Muhammed Ahsan and Nasir Ahmeed filed a complaint against the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Federal District Court challenging the department’s decision to revoke the store’s authorization to accept funds from the Supplemental Nutrition Program, also known as SNAP. 

The department withdrew the store’s eligibility to accept SNAP funds Oct. 20, 2021, after it claimed that the store did not provide sufficient proof of eligibility, according to the May 19 complaint. The store’s owners requested an administrative review of the decision, which upheld the department’s decision. 

The authorization was revoked because the department determined that the store does not sell enough food in four staple food categories and 50% of the store’s total gross retail sales are not in staple food categories, according to the department’s final agency appeal decision document. 

An agent with the department made a store visit July 21, but claimed the on-duty manager refused the visit, according to the appeal decision. Ahmeed and Ahsan’s attorney Aaron Fethke said the visit was not refused; rather, the agent showed up without a prior appointment when the manager was busy and did not wait to talk to them or offer to reschedule a visit. 

The department then requested store receipts from transactions within a certain 30-day time frame to prove the store met the requirements to take SNAP benefits, according to the appeal decision. All but three receipts the owners submitted were outside the 30-day time frame. The department suspended the store’s eligibility to accept SNAP funds.  

Upon review during the appeals process, only documentation submitted to the department in its initial review was considered, according to Fethke. The department’s decision was upheld at the end of the appeal process. The store is allowed to reapply six months after the date of the appeals decision, according to the appeal decision. 

Ahsan and Ahmeed took ownership of the store last year. Their attorney said the store had been considered compliant for several years before the new owners took over and there have been no significant changes to what foods are sold there since the store changed hands. 

Given the store’s history of compliance, there should have been more of an effort to continue the investigation and to get the accurate documentation, Fethke said. 

He thinks the decision not to consider other documentation on appeal that would have proved the store meets the requirements was arbitrary, he said. 

“When my client attempted to show them the necessary paperwork that would clearly show that they were entitled to SNAP, to distribute Snap benefits, to participate in the program,” he said, “they didn’t want to look at it. Which is, you know, to us not only silly but kind of arbitrary.” 

He thinks the department should have worked more with the store owners to get the more accurate paperwork that proves the store is eligible to accept those funds, he said. The program is not a major component of the store’s budget, but accepting the benefits is an important service the store wants to provide to the recipients of those funds. 

Fethke said there was some confusion in the process to submit the necessary paperwork to the department. He thinks the next step the department should have taken was to follow up with the store owners and ask for the proper documentation. 

The government was “jumping the gun a bit” when it decided to suspend the store’s eligibility instead of reaching out to acquire the proper documentation, he said. He hopes to resolve the issue without depriving people in the community of an essential service. 

“They’re in compliance, that’s what’s frustrating; factually speaking they’re fully in compliance and the SNAP program makes perfect sense for the store and the people that rely on it,” Fethke said. “But the government didn’t really want to take the necessary steps to verify it, so now we have to litigate it.” 

The Department of Agriculture did not respond to a request for comment.