Altimont Wilks, the owner of a Black-owned convenience store in Hagerstown, Maryland who was formerly incarcerated, has been banned from accepting food stamps at his store because of his criminal history. He is now taking legal action against the federal government, seeking a change to their current rule.
52-year-old Wilks is the owner of Carmen’s Corner Store, which he opened in Maryland, first in Hagerstown and then in Frederick. Through the shop, he aims to address the needs of a low-income community struggling with limited access to affordable meals, residing in a food desert.
Many of his customers rely on SNAP benefits (formerly known as food stamps). However, Wilks, who has a past felony conviction, is facing a roadblock as the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) disqualifies him from accepting SNAP benefits due to his criminal record.
“If you ask the average person if they’d rather be a legitimate business person or a lowly drug dealer, I’m pretty sure they’d say, a legitimate business person. And that’s what we need. But without the resources and the level playing field, entrepreneurs like myself don’t stand a chance,” Wilks told Fox 5 DC.
Consequently, Wilks has initiated a lawsuit that argues the unjustness of the rule wherein “the USDA says anyone with any prior alcohol, drug, tobacco, or firearm offense lacks the ‘business integrity’ to accept SNAP as payment.”
Wilks’ criminal history dates back to his teenage years when he was involved with a gang and faced multiple drug-related charges. In 2004, he was arrested for drug trafficking and gun possession during a cross-border drug operation from Maryland to Pennsylvania. After serving over 12 years in prison, he was released in 2018 and opened Carmen’s Corner Store, dedicated to his mother’s memory.
The USDA’s decision has faced criticism from advocates like Jared McClain, an attorney at the Institute for Justice. He said, “The business integrity rule hurts the low-income communities that Congress intended to help. He opened his store to be able to provide local groceries at a community convenience store for his neighborhood and not being able to sell the groceries that he has provided for them doesn’t just hurt Altimont but hurts his community as well.”
To address this issue, Maryland Congressman David Trone has introduced a bipartisan bill called the SNAP Second Chance Act. The proposed legislation seeks to prevent the USDA from imposing such restrictions on individuals with criminal backgrounds, providing them with a second chance to establish legitimate businesses and serve their communities.
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