The United States Department of Agriculture permanently banned a Vermont store from accepting food stamps in 2012, according to court documents.
The case between Nadia International Market and the U.S. government could reach the U.S. Supreme Court if the store’s lawyers decide to file a petition within the next 60 days.
Nadia International Market opened on Main St. in Winooski in 2010 to serve the area’s international community.
“All the community is welcome to come here and find whatever they want,” said Aymen Yahya, the current owner of Nada International Market, which is the new name of the market.
When the doors opened, it was owned by Yahya’s grandfather, Yahya Ikhmayyis.
The family says 75% of the customers are food stamp recipients. The store started participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, soon after it opened.
In 2012, it was disqualified.
“The food stamp have something against us,” said Yahya.
The USDA Food and Nutrition Service says the small market was trafficking food stamps.
Food stamp trafficking is when SNAP benefits are exchanged for cash. It is against the law.
According to court documents, in 2012, the agency alleged, based on the market’s benefit transactions, there were patterns of “unusual, irregular and inexplicable” SNAP activity. These are things the USDA says it looks for when investigating fraud.
The USDA cited the market for five violations of unusual Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, transactions from August – October 2012.
First, the USDA found 42 transactions ending in $.00.
Yahya says this is common practice in his family’s culture.
“We usually don’t count the cents, like it’s a discount,” he said.
Next, the USDA found many rapid sets of purchases of significant amounts by the same or different households in under three minutes.
“While talking, they meet some people they know here. After ten minutes, they see an item they wanted and they take it and buy it again,” said Yahya. “So they said, ‘how come there’s more than one transaction from the same customer at once?'”
Other charges include 36 transaction that depleted the majority of the account’s monthly benefit allotment and excessively large purchase transactions.
The family says they allow customers to set up a credit line.
“People they run out of money at the end of the month and they still want to come get something so he tells them ‘just buy it and you can pay it in the beginning of the month when you get money’,” explained Yahya.
That itself, according to the USDA, is a violation of the program, though not disqualifying.
During court proceedings, according to documents, lawyers for Nadia International Market offered a temporary suspension for the credit violation instead of the permanent disqualification.
The USDA cites the store’s inventory, size and scale of its checkout process and lack of shopping carts as some reasons why customers are unlikely to rack up large transactions in a short amount of time.
“There appeared to be no basis for exception customer attraction to Nadia Market, there being no profusion of special or custom services rendered,” reads the USDA’s final agency decision.
Yahya and his family claim their specialty items, at reasonable prices are what attracts customers.
After the store received a letter, in 2012, saying it was permanently disqualified from the program, it sued the U.S. government.
“That’s our right to do, you know?” said Yahya.
A federal judge in Vermont sided with the government in 2015. A three-judge panel in the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City decided the same in late August.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office declined our request for an interview in case the case goes to court again.
The lawyer for Nadia International Market is considering filing a petition for the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision from the lower court.
In the meantime, Yahya took over ownership from his grandfather and changed the name from Nadia International Market to Nada International Market in an effort to get back into the program.
“I told him ‘Even if my grandfather did something wrong that doesn’t mean it’s going to be my record. We are different people,'” he said.
It didn’t work. This December will be five years without being able to accept food stamps.
“It affected us a lot. But we’re not to the point that we have to close down because we don’t make a profit,” said Yahya. “We learn to make new customers every day. Even people with food stamps, because they don’t find these products everywhere, so they have to buy cash and that’s what’s happening. People, they come here, they buy the necessary stuff for cash.”
Yahya argues the federal government never brought forth solid proof or witnesses against them.
His family allows believes a language barrier and poor understanding of the rules may have played a factor.
The family feels targeted because it runs a small business.
The USDA claims the vast majority of trafficking occurs in small retailers.
A 2016 report from the USDA shows one retailer in Vermont banned from the program, one in New Hampshire and 448 in New York.
According to USDA spokesperson Cynthia Tackett, 12,364 retail stores were disqualified for trafficking over the last ten years.
In Vermont, the 100% federally-funded program, known as 3SquaresVermont, is administered by the Vermont Department for Children and Families, Economic Services Division.
“It’s a very large program. We’re talking billions of dollars. So even a small percent of fraud could be a large amount of money,” said Sean Brown, deputy commissioner of the Economic Services Division of the Vermont Department for Children and Families.
Last year, the state issued $118 million to 75,000 Vermonters with 732 retailers participating, according to Brown.
“The vast overwhelming majority of the retailers in Vermont participate in this program. They participate well,” he said. “For them, this is a significant source of livelihood. You divide $110 million of SNAP benefits between 732 retailers, that’s a significant amount of income. If this program did not exist, eligible Vermonters would be struggling and also that’s just money coming into our economy that wouldn’t be there and that’d be a significant impact as well.”
“It’s really tough when you lose 75% of your profit. It’s hard to do things,” said Yahya. “We did not do anything wrong.”
An attorney for Nadia International Market, Jacob Durell, cites the exclusion of data, including from farmers markets, as proof the market was unfairly targeted and scrutinized.
He points out many of the actions taken by the federal government were done under the Obama administration.
“There’s no reason yet to think that things will be any different, but maybe the new administration has reasons to ensure that the cultures of those who are here lawfully can flourish and make our economies more diverse and stronger,” he said in a statement.