What more states allowing SNAP recipients to buy food online means for food security

April 14, 2020
Source: Civil Eats
Author: Nicole Rasul

For Julia Miller, a single mother of two from Kansas City, Missouri, a recent trip to the grocery store required some unusual help from a friend.

Miller, who operates a housecleaning service that has been put on hold in recent weeks, vented frustration on social media about the fact that she’d need to take her kids with her to shop for groceries, despite potential exposure to the virus.

“I didn’t want to take them into the store,” she said of her two children, aged 4 and nearly 10. However, because she relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—formerly known as food stamps—to help feed her family, paying online wasn’t an option.

Thankfully, a friend responded, noting that she could meet Miller in the grocery store parking lot and watch the children in Miller’s car from a safe social distance of the friend’s own vehicle. While it was a generous gesture, it’s not a sustainable solution for her family over the long term.

Each year, SNAP ensures that over 40 million low- and no-income Americans like Miller have the means to buy food. However, in Missouri and many other states, SNAP dollars can only be redeemed in person at authorized retailers. And at a time where governors have asked residents in 45 states to practice social distancing, the fact that millions of individuals reliant on SNAP must venture out of their homes to pay for their groceries may be adding to the public health crisis and putting more low-income people at risk.

More than a dozen states offer online SNAP purchasing.

“In this time of unprecedented crisis, they should make it possible for all SNAP recipients to order food online in every state in the country,” Miller says.

In early 2019, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched an online purchasing pilot for SNAP users. Until last week, the program has been only available in six states—Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, and Washington—and the number of online retailers are limited. On Wednesday, the USDA announced that California and Arizona would join the pilot; and on Saturday, that Florida and Idaho would join as well.

Now, activists, politicians, and everyday citizens like Miller are calling for fast-track implementation of the online pilot as the nation is strong armed by COVID-19. Also on Wednesday, a group of 64 U.S. Representatives, including Rosa DeLauro (D-Connecticut), Ilhan Omar (D-Minnesota), and Alan Lowenthal (D-California), sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue to “immediately expand the Online Purchasing Pilot to all states and additional retailers.”

A Pilot Years in the Making

For six decades, SNAP beneficiaries were issued paper-based coupons to use like cash at grocers and other food retailers.

By the 1990s, the program was revamped to include electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that function much like debit cards. Each month, benefits are deposited into a user’s EBT account and cards are used to purchase food at grocery stores, convenience stores, and farmers’ markets. The amount of benefits allotted varies based on household size and average monthly cash flow.

However, the necessity of a PIN, which ensures added security for the program, has historically limited EBT sales to in-person sales. Mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill, the online purchasing pilot aims to test safe, secure e-commerce transactions for SNAP users and retailers (it does not currently compensate users for service or delivery fees related to transactions). The pilot launched in April 2019 in New York state, where SNAP users are able to use their EBT cards on the Walmart, Amazon, and ShopRite websites.

In its launch announcement, the USDA noted that it hopes one day the program will be available to the tens of millions of SNAP users across the country. Just when that might happen is unclear, however.

“All eligible and interested retailers who can meet the requirements to process online SNAP transactions will be able to participate,” the USDA noted in the announcement. “The timeline is dependent on the progress of the pilot and any regulations which may need to be issued,” the agency added.

By January 2020, SNAP users in Washington state were added to the program, and in March, program beneficiaries in Iowa, Alabama, and Oregon were included. Nebraska was added in April. All are supposed to be able to use their EBT cards to buy food online from Amazon and Walmart. In Alabama recipients are also allowing online purchases at the state’s Wright’s Market chain.

The effort follows on the heels of the Trump administration’s recent efforts to cut federal feeding program funding for hundreds of thousands of Americans by tightening work and job training requirements. This change was scheduled to take effect on April 1, but was temporarily blocked in mid-March by a federal judge due to the arrival of the coronavirus. On Friday, the administration said it will not appeal this decision.

A COVID-19 Call for Action

Over the last three weeks, a record 16 million people have applied for unemployment benefits across the country. Some states, such as California, are seeing a doubling of applications for federal nutrition assistance programs at the same time. As such, a number of anti-hunger advocates and public health experts are pushing to see online SNAP access expanded to the other 42 states, and a wider pool of retailers.

In an article published in the online health forum of the Journal of the American Medical Association in late March, Pasquale Rummo, Marie Bragg, and Stella Yi, three doctors from New York University, pointed to gaps in the federal stimulus program and argued that addressing food insecurity during an emergency like COVID-19 is not only a matter of equity but “a critical strategy to reduce transmission” of the coronavirus.

The authors pointed to guidance offered by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on how Americans can safely navigate the pandemic and wrote: “The CDC’s report encourages individuals and families to secure a two-week supply of food and learn how to get food delivered, but it does not provide specific mitigation strategies to address inequities in food access.”

As one of a list of public-sector solutions, the authors wrote: “Expand the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot to additional states and retailers and subsidize deliveries for those affected by emergencies. In conjunction, waive work requirements for public food assistance programs for those who cannot work because of an emergency.”

According to a USDA spokesperson, the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) division, which oversees SNAP, is “working with other states [beyond the six already included in the pilot] that are interested in implementing the online purchasing option” in light of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Further, the spokesperson noted that “states that are interested in the pilot should reach out to their respective FNS regional offices. FNS is working with all states that have expressed interest and are able to expedite online implementation.”

In recent days, states like Ohio have worked with the USDA to implement “click and collect” programs for SNAP users. These initiatives permit beneficiaries to order groceries online, which can then be picked up and paid for at the store. In Ohio, if an institution has a wireless point-of-sale machine, they are expected to scan EBT cards for payment carside, enabling users to complete transactions from the safety of a vehicle.

Congressman Joe Neguse (D-Colorado) is leading a national push for legislation to ease SNAP and WIC (Women, Infants, & Children) regulations during the COVID-19 outbreak. Through the Food Assistance for Kids and Families During COVID-19 Act of 2020, proposed by Neguse and Congresswoman Jahana Hayes (D-Connecticut), grocery delivery would be permitted nationwide for SNAP participants with EBT swipe by a mobile device at the point of delivery—either a household’s doorstep or a store.

Adaptation in the Short and Long Term

Noah Fulmer, director of national partnerships at the Fair Food Network, says his organization has been watching the development of the online SNAP initiative for years. His nonprofit, which created the Double Up Food Bucks program that is currently active in nearly 30 states, hopes that any online effort by the USDA will include nutrition incentive programming for users.

“We definitely want to see the layering-in of Double Up Food Bucks with online SNAP ordering,” Fulmer says. “This will enable families to afford fresh produce when it may feel like it would be too expensive otherwise.”

In the Double Up Food Bucks model, for every dollar a SNAP user spends on fresh fruits and vegetables, they receive an additional dollar in free produce, up to $20 daily. Currently, the USDA pilot does not permit users to use Double Up Food Bucks when shopping online but that may soon change.

“Wright’s and Fair Food Network are working with USDA to get the green light to turn the Double Up feature on online,” says Fulmer.

A trip to the grocery store can literally be a matter of life or death for some Americans.

When questioned about further implementation of nutrition incentives online, a USDA spokesperson noted that “retailers who participate online can integrate incentives if they are partnering with a Nutrition Incentive Program grantee or have worked through the details with USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service.”

Lessons can also be learned from the New York City-based Farragut Food Club, which was organized in response to the launch of the SNAP online pilot program last year. The initiative was co-designed by national nonprofit Enterprise Community Partners and a group of residents living at New York City Housing Authority’s Farragut Houses in Dumbo, Brooklyn, the majority of whom qualify for SNAP.

In the project, qualifying individuals and families mobilized to shop online for groceries at Amazon using their SNAP dollars. For some residents, the program meant a monumental savings of time and energy.

Leaders educated neighbors about the SNAP pilot, helped them to access computers and Wi-Fi, and the group collectively purchased and stored groceries to ensure food safety and prevent theft. Over a series of months, the group was able to sway Amazon to waive membership fees and grocery delivery minimums to users of the program—a key point under current debate in the COVID-19 climate.

Nevin Cohen, research director of the Urban Food Policy Institute at the City University of New York, helped to evaluate the Farragut House program and has written about SNAP as an economic recovery aid during and after a crisis like the coronavirus. Cohen says that COVID-19 demonstrates an obvious need for adaptation in the America food system.

“Additional buying options can provide increased access to food and, as we’re seeing, those options are particularly important in emergencies,” Cohen told Civil Eats.

“The pandemic shows us that we really need to be concerned about resiliency in our food systems,” as well as “food access across the income spectrum,” he added, at a time when a trip to the grocery store can literally be a matter of life or death for some Americans.

First published in Civil Eats on April 14, 2020.