USDA disqualifies three Somalian markets from accepting federal food stamps

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Ahmed Sheik-Mohamud stood in his market yesterday, with its burlap bags of basmati rice, its packages of coriander and barley and a walk-in freezer usually filled with fresh goat and lamb. His freezer, though, has been empty for days.

In a second blow to the local Somalian community in recent months, the Towfiq Halal Meat and Deli grocery and two other local Somalian-owned stores are unusually absent of customers, who largely shop using federal food stamps.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has notified three markets they were disqualified indefinitely from accepting food stamps.

The stores, USDA authorities explained in letters sent to the market owners last month, appeared to be trading food-stamps benefits for cash. An analysis of transaction records, the letters continued, showed an "unusual, irregular, and/or inexplicable" activity at each store.

In addition to Towfiq, the USDA notified Madina Mini Market and Maka Mini Mart, the South Seattle store that was shut down by Treasury officials in November when they went after an adjacent money-wiring business suspected of financing al-Qaida terrorists. The Maka market only recently reopened and was slowly recovering.

Local Somalis, still reeling from the federal raid and the accompanying public suspicion that they might have terrorist ties, are stunned that a second federal agency effectively shut down the community's three largest markets by banning their ability to accept food stamps. All three markets specialize in halal meat prepared according to strict Islamic dietary rules.

"I ask why, if there's suspicion, why do they send letters to three Somalian stores?" asked Sheik-Mohamud, who has run his 23rd Avenue South market since 1997.

"People keep coming in here and say, 'What should I do now?' "

Immigrant advocates say the USDA's action is the latest example of a federal agency targeting a specific ethnic group, an allegation the agency denies. It is destroying the livelihoods of three families, they say, while hampering the health of an entire community whose members rely on the markets and who can't always communicate in English.

"Some women can't go to Safeway or QFC and buy their halal meat or ask for things because they don't speak English," said Farhiya Mohamed with the local Refugee Women's Alliance. She said the majority of an estimated 10,000 Seattle-area Somalian refugees rely on food stamps.

The USDA, in a Dec. 6 letter sent to Madina Mini Market, said electronic food-stamp transactions were unusually large, in the several-hundred-dollar range, when the average transaction for this type of market in Washington state is $13.83.

At times, the agency noted, the transactions were for an even dollar amount. And with only one cash register present, agency officials said several households nonetheless made large transactions within minutes of one another — something inconsistent with the store's counter space or available stock.

"If there's a big transaction that goes through, and within minutes, there's another big transaction, that raises a red flag," said Anne McGuigan, a spokeswoman with the USDA regional office in San Francisco.

"We follow the pattern. I have never known how someone could add up $150 worth of groceries that quickly."

McGuigan said yesterday she could not go into more detail about the Seattle investigations pending an administrative review that has been requested by two of the three local Somalian businessmen.

A Somalian store in Portland, she said, had also been recently disqualified, but the decision to disqualify a second similar Portland business was later reversed by a local agency officer.

McGuigan said the agency relies on electronic transactions to begin its investigations — paperwork that doesn't immediately note if the stores are immigrant-owned or if they cater to a particular ethnic community. She said the agency is not targeting Somalian businesses.

The three store owners have adamantly denied any wrongdoing. And they say so-called "unusual" transactions can be explained by the shopping customs of their Somalian and Oromo patrons.

"Families come in here once a month to do shopping at one time, sometimes arriving together in one car," said Sheik-Mohamud. "Our customers call us and order in advance. 'We need this dollar amount in beef, goat.' So when they arrive to the store, we have their orders ready."

The store owners could now face criminal charges. Moreover, even if an USDA administrative-review officer reverses the initial disqualification decision, the Welfare Reform Act of 1996 prohibits the stores from filing a claim against USDA to recoup lost sales.