Topeka A change in federal rules has forced the closing of three Kansas groceries that served only participants in the Women, Infants and Children program.
The last of the three stores, the Family Nutrition Center in east Topeka, closed Saturday. The other two stores were in Garden City and Kansas City, and all three were owned by David Criswell.
Criswell said he was forced to close the stores because the U.S. Department of Agriculture lowered reimbursement rates for small stores like his in 2006.
"I think their whole goal was to put small stores out of business," he said.
The Agriculture Department said its rule change could prevent participants in the WIC program from paying higher costs for food at WIC-only stores than at other groceries. In issuing its rule, the department said the change was designed to "maximize the number of eligible women, infants and children served with available federal funding."
WIC serves poor, single parents, pregnant women, and children under 6, by providing vouchers to purchase certain food items. Participants can buy the items at grocery stores and other retailers, such as Wal-Mart.
Before the new rule, WIC vendors fell into one of six pricing levels. The smaller stores, such as Family Nutrition, were reimbursed more, while other, larger stores with economies of scale received less because their products cost less.
In Kansas, reimbursement rates for smaller stores are based on the average rate for the larger ones. Criswell said Family Nutrition in Topeka often was reimbursed less than it paid for certain items.
"How were we supposed to survive?" he asked. "This is just un-American."
More than 600 patrons of the Topeka store signed a petition protesting the new rule. Many described the store as convenient and friendly.
For many of the Spanish-speaking store patrons, having a Spanish-speaking worker was a plus, said Jorge Escalante, the Topeka store manager.