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Ask The MarkupCoronavirus

Why Can’t More Families Use SNAP Benefits for Online Orders?

Technology hurdles for states and smaller retailers mean that some recipients can't shelter in place

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For many of the most vulnerable Americans, online grocery ordering has become a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic. The elderly and those with underlying health conditions, who are most at risk of severe illness if they are exposed to the virus, have few other options for safely staying fed. 

For Americans who purchase food through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (previously known as Food Stamps), though, online grocery delivery is rarely an option. SNAP is available in every state in the nation, but the majority of states don’t provide a way for SNAP funds to be used for online orders. In those states that do have a system, very few grocery retailers have signed on. 

In 2017, SNAP aided more than 40 million people with purchasing groceries—a figure that doesn’t account for the tens of millions of Americans put out of work by the COVID-19 pandemic. Food insecurity has also been linked to chronic health conditions that could lead some Americans who need assistance to be even more susceptible to the coronavirus. 

“These low-income families are put at risk when they have to go into the grocery store,” said Salaam Bhatti, a public benefits attorney at the Virginia Poverty Law Center. “So you have a whole class of people that you are not allowing, or that are not able, to shop online.”

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Who Can Use SNAP Online?

When buying groceries, families on SNAP automatically receive their benefits through an Electronic Benefits Transfer, or EBT, card. The card is loaded with credit that can be used at stores in exchange for groceries.

Recognizing that vulnerable Americans could sometimes need a delivery option, Congress authorized a federal pilot program for online SNAP orders in 2014 and officially launched it last year. To participate, states have to enroll in the pilot with the federal government, and grocery retailers then join.

But states have been slow to sign on: Only 14 states and Washington, D.C., are participating today, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. Many of those states joined the program only in recent months, as the pandemic spread. Several other states have signed on but have not yet implemented a system that would let SNAP recipients make online orders. 

Even in states that are participating, grocery retailers accepting SNAP payments are also severely limited. With only a few regional exceptions, ordering with SNAP benefits is mostly an option available only through Amazon and Walmart.

For people with chronic conditions, the need can be dire. A Pennsylvania woman with cerebral palsy who receives aid through SNAP recently explained the risk inherent in shopping to the Associated Press. “I’m so terrified when people come up to me now,” she said. “I don’t want to go out to the store.”

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What’s the Problem?

Advocacy groups told The Markup that part of the problem is the need to build technology that can properly categorize grocery items, which is a hurdle for smaller retailers that might otherwise accept EBT. Not all items are eligible for purchase through SNAP, so as The New York Times recently noted, retailers not only need to offer an online ordering system but also one that differentiates among specific eligible products, like fruits and vegetables, and ineligible products, like hot foods. They also need the infrastructure—the cars, drivers, and equipment—to deliver or offer curb-side pickup after processing an order.   

For people with chronic conditions, the need can be dire.

So far, building that system has mostly made sense for companies that already work at massive scale, like Amazon and Walmart. Despite widely accepting EBT as payment, most smaller grocery chains don’t offer a similar system. 

“I don’t know that the supermarket industry was as proactive as they should have been on this,” said Joel Berg, CEO of the advocacy group Hunger Free America, which has received some funding from Amazon and Walmart. He points to the potentially lucrative opportunity in designing a single system as a solution that could be licensed to grocery stores around the country. 

There are also technology obstacles for state governments. Parker Gilkesson, a policy analyst at the Center for Law and Social Policy, said some states, relying on outdated and fragile software for their benefits programs, may be reluctant to implement a new system, fearing that resulting website downtime could lead to interruption of SNAP assistance. Similar shutdowns, she said, have happened in the past when states have tried to update their software. “They were afraid that the same thing would happen based on this pilot program,” she said. 

SNAP benefits also can’t be spent on delivery fees charged by a retailer on top of the cost of groceries, even though those fees can make up a substantial portion of the order’s total cost. “That’s definitely a wrinkle,” Bhatti said. He points out that lawmakers are already aware of the issue: Legislation recently introduced in both houses of Congress would set aside $500 million to subsidize retailers’ fees for groceries delivered to households on SNAP. The bills have been  referred to committee.

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What Could Happen Next?

This month, 26 senators wrote a letter to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking exactly what steps have been taken to help SNAP recipients who may want to order groceries online. “We believe that no individual or family should be disadvantaged simply because they rely on SNAP benefits to access the food they need,” the senators wrote. Some lawmakers have also pressed Amazon and Walmart to waive fees and minimum delivery orders for SNAP participants during the pandemic. 

Meanwhile, states that haven’t signed on to the online delivery program are making do with workarounds. In Ohio, for example, officials are encouraging retailers to let SNAP participants “click and collect” groceries—to pick out their groceries online, then pay in person with EBT as they pick up the food. 

But with new states scrambling to sign up for the pilot as the crisis took hold, some advocates wonder why it took so long to get them on board with the program in the first place. “Unfortunately, when it comes to programs concerning people experiencing low income,” Gilkesson said, “it takes something like a pandemic to get certain things up and running.”

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