By Joe Beck
It takes more than a threatening letter from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to prevent Rodney Sparks from selling groceries to customers enrolled in the Food Stamp program, recently renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Sparks's troubles with the USDA are fallout from his recent conviction in Warren County Circuit Court on charges of selling misbranded and adulterated meat products.
The USDA sent Sparks a letter on April 24 warning him his store, Rodney's Discount Foods in Front Royal, will lose his eligibility to accept SNAP cards from customers within a few days. But Brad Pollack, Spark's attorney, said Monday that his client can continue to participate in SNAP while the USDA undertakes a review of the decision to disqualify Sparks from the program.
"My understanding is as long he files a request for review, nothing will change," Pollack said.
The letter from Steven W. Thomas, section chief of the USDA retailer operations division in the agency's Philadelphia office, told Sparks that his authorization to accept SNAP cards is "permanently withdrawn" as a result of the convictions.
Federal officials changed the name of the widely known Food Stamp program to SNAP in 2008. The program's goal is reduce hunger by providing a way for poor families and individuals to buy food that would otherwise be unaffordable.
Pollack said Sparks "does quite a bit of business with those enrolled in SNAP and those people are getting great value for the taxpayers because of Rodney."
Pollack said he is confident that USDA agencies will decide to allow Sparks to continue participating in the SNAP program.
"He's done no one wrong," Pollack said "No consumer that I know of has ever complained about anything he has ever sold there. Rodney tells me USDA has been by his store several times in the last year, and they have found nothing wrong."
Pollack said he doesn't know when the USDA will rule on Sparks's status.
"It's the federal government," Pollack said. "I can only imagine it will be many months."
A telephone call and email message to the USDA received no response.
A criminal complaint in the case filed against Sparks by a state food inspector described the meat in the store as "putrid," misbranded and otherwise unfit for human consumption.
The complaint said employees at the Food Lion supermarket in Berryville knew Sparks and his vehicle from "numerous" times seeing him remove discarded food from a Dumpster.
Sparks admitted in an interview with The Northern Virginia Daily last year that he did some Dumpster-diving at Food Lion, but the meat he took was fed to 50 to 75 cats kept at his home in Monrovia, Md.
Sparks was convicted on an Alford plea, which allows the defendant to claim he is innocent, but the prosecution has assembled enough evidence to persuade a judge or jury of his guilt.
Pollack called the convictions and the USDA's concerns about them a "technical" matter.
"In no way should Rodney not be able to accept food stamps in the SNAP program because everything he sells is healthful and nutritional," Pollack said.
Contact staff writer Joe Beck at 540-465-5137 ext. 142, or firstname.lastname@example.org