Pueblo Foods Fights Disqualification from Food Stamp Program

by Peter Schmidtke – (en Espanol.)

“I fell back in my chair and I just about died.” Liduina “Nina” Estremera shook her head when she described her reaction to opening a letter in early October from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ordering her to stop accepting food stamps from customers at her store, Pueblo Foods, 2029 N. Holton St. Since the USDA handed down the order in October, Pueblo Foods and its owner have struggled to make ends meet. Estremera said she has lost $75,000 in sales since October and has had to lay off six employees. The federal government’s food stamp program (FSP) enables low-income families to purchase food from authorized stores. An undercover investigator from the USDA recorded eight instances between February 28 and August 15, 2002 in which a cashier accepted food stamp credits for non-food items including alcohol. The investigator on one occasion also documented the cashier illegally exchanging food stamp benefits for cash. Estremera fired the cashier immediately after she was notified by mail by the USDA. Estremera, who has been accepting food stamps at her store without incident since 1989, hired a lawyer who submitted her case to the USDA’s national office. Her lawyer is requesting that the USDA reverse the disqualification based on both her existing employee training for food stamps in Spanish and English and the unique position that Pueblo Foods holds in Riverwest. According to data submitted to her lawyer by Don Sargent of the Northeast Milwaukee Industrial Development Corp.(NMIDC), Pueblo Foods is the only store that directly serves the 4,500 Hispanics who live in the Riverwest and Harambee neighborhoods. “As far as I know, her store is the only one in the area where employees speak both English and Spanish,” Sargent said. “It’s really difficult to get things at the big supermarkets if you only speak Spanish.” Supporting her lawyer’s argument were signatures from over 35 customers and letters from Sargent, Vince Bushell of the YMCA Community Development Corp., and Victor Huyke from El Conquistador, a local Spanish-language paper. Estremera does not believe she and her neighbors should be punished for the mistakes of one employee. “We trust our employees,” she said. “But we can’t watch them every second — otherwise we would work their job.” Kimberly Phillips, a spokesperson for the USDA who was unable to comment directly on Estremera’s case, said that in general, employers participating in the food stamp program are responsible for their employees. Phoebe Williams, an expert in labor law at Marquette University, said that employers are generally liable for an employee whenever federal violations occur within the normal scope of employment, like operating a cash register or cleaning the store. Estremera said she is also upset about how the USDA handled her case. “Why didn’t they alert me immediately in February and say ‘Something isn’t right here.’ Why didn’t they give me a warning first?” Phillips said that retailers who participate in the program “have been given training prior to that. They have already been given the do’s and don’ts.” The disqualification has affected Mildred Brown, who uses food stamps. “Pueblo has better hospitality, and good prices,” Brown said, unloading her cart. “I still buy a few things here, but I use the stamps at another store.” Evan Wright Jr., who lives on 60th and Capitol, said he uses food stamps at a larger supermarket and picks up a few things at Pueblo Foods. “I’d like to get everything here, but you have no choice– you have to eat. You get most of the food at the supermarket, but it’s not as good.” Estremera stocks Caribbean and Puerto Rican food that shoppers can find only in her store and on the south side of Milwaukee, including jerk seasoning, dried fish, green bananas, and cassava and pumpkin leaves. “Some stores don’t care about those things, but I do,” she said. Estremera is waiting to hear back from the USDA and will appeal in court if they uphold the disqualification. Riverwest Currents – Volume 2 – Issue 1 – January 2003
by Peter Schmidtke