A Battle Over Benefits Is Playing Out at a Somali Grocery Store in Phoenix

Mohamed Ahmed stocks shelves at Phoenix Mini Mart, the grocery store that he owns.
Mohamed Ahmed stocks shelves at Phoenix Mini Mart, the grocery store that he owns. Antonia Farzan
Mohamed Ahmed has gotten to the point where he just hands out food for free.

Ahmed owns Phoenix Mini Market, a small African grocery store. Many of his customers are new refugees and receive vouchers from WIC — short for the Special Supplemental Nutritional Program for Women, Infants, and Children — which can only be used to purchase specific grocery items such as eggs, milk, and fresh vegetables.

Ahmed can’t accept those vouchers as form of payment. He’s applied repeatedly to the Arizona Department of Health Services, but the store has failed inspection each time — a bone of contention for the Somali Association of Arizona, which feels that the state could do more to help small businesses become part of the program.

But when families show up clutching their WIC checks, Ahmed often can’t bring himself to turn them away.

Figuring out exactly which foods you can buy with WIC vouchers is challenging under the best of circumstances. (Cheese is allowed, for instance, but not cream cheese.) And good luck trying to find someone at Safeway or Bashas' who can translate Somali or Arabic.

So refugees fill up their carts, head to the checkout, and then get told they can’t use their vouchers on the specific groceries they’ve selected.

“They come back here and say, ‘No one helped us,’” Ahmed explained in a recent interview.

He can’t take their vouchers, but he can give them some baby food to take home with them. It’s not much of a long-term solution, but for right now, it’s all he can do.

In order to receive WIC benefits, you have to either be pregnant or have kids under the age of 5 at home — and have an income that's at or below 185 percent of federal poverty guidelines.

Using that metric, more than half the women, infants, and children in Arizona are eligible to receive WIC benefits, according to the Department of Health Services.

But the actual enrollment numbers are significantly smaller than that, coming out to a current total of about 140,000 people.

Crucially, WIC doesn’t require proof of U.S. citizenship, unlike SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (which is what most people think of when they hear the words “food stamps.”) And Arizona residents who were born outside the United States are statistically more likely to have incomes below the federal poverty line.

SNAP is still the much-larger program. The number of Arizona residents enrolled in SNAP hovers just short of 1 million people. It’s also accepted at a wider variety of stores, meaning it’s easier for participants to actually use their benefits.

Over 4,000 stores in Arizona allow customers to pay with SNAP. Just 600 accept WIC.

Most of the stores that do accept WIC are major national retailers like Walmart, Albertsons, Safeway, and Fry’s. Or they’re the local equivalents, like Bashas' and Ranch Market.

Small, independent grocery stores — which often cater to specific immigrant communities — rarely show up on the list.

Out of 322 stores in Maricopa County that accept WIC checks, only 29 aren’t part of a chain.

Phoenix New Times contacted a variety of tiendas, carnicerias, Asian, African, and Middle Eastern grocery stores, and other local markets that are missing from the list.

Their reasons for not accepting WIC varied. Some store managers in more affluent areas had never heard of the program, or said that they hadn’t had customers ask to pay with WIC checks.

Others weren’t clear on what WIC was, or how it differs from SNAP. Some found the requirements to be too much of a hassle, or didn’t want to carry the specific items that can be purchased with WIC.

And then there's people like Mohamed Ahmed.

In 2014, Ahmed purchased the Phoenix Mini Market, which is located at 5050 East McDowell Road in the shadow of the red rocks of Papago Park. It sits in an otherwise unremarkable strip mall that’s become a sort of mini-Mogadishu: there’s a Somali tax preparer, a Somali immigration lawyer, a store selling traditional clothing and Islamic books, a phone store where just about all the employees and customers are Somali, a Somali restaurant, and two competing Somali cafes.

Despite its generic-sounding name, the Phoenix Mini Market bears little resemblance to a typical convenience store: The shelves are stocked with berbere seasoning, dates, Kenyan tea, 25-pound bags of teff flour, basmati rice, fava beans, ghee, injera, mint sharbat, camel and goat meat, shea butter, frozen gulab jamun, and phone cards for calling Africa.

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A nondescript Phoenix strip mall is home to several Somali businesses.
Chris Malloy
The store had accepted WIC checks when Ahmed bought it, but the change in ownership meant that he had to re-apply. There was a mandatory one-year waiting period before he could do that. In the meantime, he got approved to accept SNAP benefits so that customers could pay with their EBT cards.

WIC was another story. Ahmed’s first application was rejected because he only had six types of fresh vegetables (the minimum is seven), four types of dairy products (the minimum is five), three types of bread and tortillas (the minimum is four), four types of cereal (the minimum is five), and six types of fruit (the minimum is seven). He decided to try again.

In order to pass inspection, he stocked up on American foods like cornflakes and tortillas, which his customers weren’t likely to buy unless they could use their WIC checks. There wasn’t much extra shelf space in the store — which is roughly the size of a Circle K — but he did his best to make it work.

The second time around, DHS failed him because he still only had four types of cereal in stock. Additionally, the inspectors wrote, “Fresh meat is not identified and not able to determine unit size.”

The price list was displayed on top of the meat counter, Ahmed said. The inspectors hadn’t marked it as a problem when they’d come to the store the previous time. But he went out and ordered an extra-large sign displaying the prices for goat legs and lamb shanks, and hung it over the meat counter.

He reapplied, waited, and went through the mandatory training again. A year had now passed since his initial application. On his third try, he passed inspection in every category. Except for the meat.

“Fresh meat is not labeled,” the inspector’s report said.

As it turned out, the prices were supposed to be posted at the level of the meat — so the giant sign he’d just bought didn’t count for anything.

“They told me that it has to be right on the meat,” Ahmed recalled. “Can you believe it?”

He filed an appeal. It took months to get a hearing. Finally, in June, the Department of Health Services agreed to come and inspect the store again.

That time, though, they found more problems. The temperature inside the freezer cases was between 12 and 19 degrees, when it should have been at 0 degrees, the state’s inspectors explained in a letter. (Ahmed disputes this.) As a result, he’d failed the frozen juice category.

The list went on. The bread that he had in stock was wheat bread, not 100 percent whole wheat bread. A jar of Gerber apples that he’d purchased in order to pass a previous inspection had expired, but was still on the shelf. Packages of San Lucia spaghetti had expired in January 2016.

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The Phoenix Mini Market carries African and Middle Eastern groceries that you can't find at Safeway or Fry's.
Antonia Farzan
Ahmed also disputes this last charge. “January 2016 is the manufacture date,” he said. He believes that the inspectors were just looking for reasons to fail him.

The whole saga ended up driving a wedge between the Somali community at 5050 East McDowell Road, and the Department of Health Services.

“It really looks like a trend, like they’re trying to make it harder for small businesses,” said Muktar Sheikh, the program coordinator for the Somali Association of Arizona, which is located in the same strip mall.

Other Somali-owned grocery stores have had similar experiences, he said. Many of them are no longer in business.

“There’s a demand — our community members want to use this program. That’s why Mohamed is fighting for it. So why, instead of helping him, do they find something wrong every time he comes in here?”

Celia Nabor, Arizona’s WIC director, insists that isn’t the case.

“I couldn't tell you what stores are Somalian-owned stores,” she said. “So it's not that we've created unfair rules for any particular group. I know from the complaints we receive that they identify as being Somalian stores, but we don't collect the race and ethnicity of a store owner.”

Nor are small businesses subject to special scrutiny, she added. “I can't favor small mom-and-pop stores over large chain stores, and vice versa. I can't favor a Kroger over a corner store.”

The goal of the inspection process, as Nabor describes it, is to ensure that grocers aren’t overcharging WIC customers and that they actually have WIC-approved foods in stock. It’s also intended to minimize the risk of fraud.

The myriad guidelines issued by both state and federal agencies attempt to impose a sense of consistency between stores.

That’s why injera, the bread that’s part of the daily diet in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Somalia, doesn’t count as bread for the purposes of the WIC program.

The reasoning? Bread has to be 100 percent whole wheat, and injera is made from teff, a grain native to Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Stuff like that isn’t what bothers Muktar Sheikh of the Somali Association of Arizona, though.

“For us, the big issue is that the store can pass all the requirements, but one minor requirement can fail the store,” he said, giving the meat-signage problem as an example. “Then the store has to wait six months to get another inspection.”

In his view, the state DHS could do more to help small-business owners qualify for the program.

“They should encourage local community grocery stores to provide WIC, not make it hard for them to get the certification. It’s sad that DHS isn’t engaging with these stores in order to make sure our communities have access to healthy food. These big grocery chains aren’t accessible for families.”

“If they’re really trying to help people, this is not the way to do it,” he said.

Corrections: A previous version of the story stated that in order to qualify for WIC, individuals need to have an income that falls well below the poverty line. It has been corrected to specify that annual income needs to be at or below 185 percent of the poverty line.

In addition, the article previously stated that low-income families are supposed to be able to use their WIC vouchers to purchase fresh meat. That is incorrect: Arizona requires stores that accept WIC benefits to carry fresh meat, however, federal guidelines prohibit WIC vouchers from being used to purchase meat.

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a staff writer at New Times and an honors graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. Before moving to Arizona, she worked for the New Times Broward-Palm Beach.