Most SNAP recipients can’t buy groceries online. Now, some states push for change.

With millions of Americans sheltering in place, many are opting to buy groceries online for home delivery to reduce risk of exposure to the coronavirus. But that isn’t an option for most people who receive federal food assistance from the USDA. Now, states are asking the department to address the issue, but the agency hasn’t said whether it will update the policy.

Amy Nelms, food access manager at Live Well Colorado, says that her organization has worked with farmers markets and local grocers during the pandemic to get food to people who receive SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits. But without online processing, “they’re just not able to get food to people in the most effective and efficient way,” she says.

The situation highlights a growing disparity: Millions of Americans can reduce their risk of being exposed to the novel coronavirus by ordering groceries online for delivery, while people on food assistance must go to the store.

“At the end of the day, SNAP shoppers not being able to access delivery is a major equity issue,” Nelms says.

Antihunger advocates have urged USDA for years to allow SNAP recipients to use their federal benefits online. The 2014 farm bill authorized a pilot program at USDA for a few states to roll out online shopping for SNAP recipients.

But the program has been slow to take off. New York was the first state to finally enable online SNAP use in 2019. Seattle, Washington, was next in January 2020.

Several of the other states chosen for the initial pilot — among them Alabama, Nebraska, and Oregon — are now rushing to get their systems in place as a response to the pandemic. Several others, including Pennsylvania and California, are petitioning USDA to expand the pilot so more SNAP recipients can shop from home.

“[Online ordering] creates an additional option for the SNAP shopper,” says Ellen Vollinger, legal and food stamp director at the Food Research and Action Center. “Getting them some additional food money is important,” she says in reference to recent efforts to expand SNAP funding. “But [so is] making sure there are more ways they can access [food].”

Before the spread of the novel coronavirus, efforts were underway in some states, independent of the USDA pilot, to get SNAP benefits accepted online. A bill in California this year proposed a working group to make recommendations on how the process might work. But now the state is looking to USDA to fast-track the process.

“[The] requirement to complete a purchase with SNAP benefits in-person may pose a risk to vulnerable Californians,” wrote Alexis Fernández of the California Department of Social Services in a letter to the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service on March 20. “To reduce the likelihood of exposure and mitigate the spread of Covid-19, while ensuring households have adequate access to food, California is requesting to expedite the implementation of a practice already proven successful in other states.”

With recent policy changes, it’s possible that California could roll out online grocery shopping for the state’s 4 million SNAP recipients within a few weeks, says Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty.

But that would require approval by federal officials. In response to questions from FERN, USDA did not say whether it had plans to expand the program to additional states. And the agency declined to share data from states that are already participating in the pilot program.

“We’re thrilled to be in a state where this is actually a possibility,” Bartholow says. “But it had been my personal hope and our organization’s hope that we could get together to work out things before we got to this moment.”

Lawmakers from other states, including Colorado and Pennsylvania, are urging federal officials to approve another workaround: allow grocery delivery to SNAP recipients’ homes, where payment could be collected with a mobile payment processing device.

“Traveling to a grocery store during this crisis is simply not possible for many SNAP participants, including seniors, immunocompromised individuals, families who lack reliable transportation and individuals with disabilities,” wrote Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey in a letter to agriculture secretary Sonny Perdue on March 18. “We must do everything we can to address these barriers by leveraging existing flexibilities and partnering with the retailers who have the ability to provide much needed grocery delivery services to all who need it.”

Recipients of federal food assistance have only been able to use their benefits in-person because of limits to SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, which are akin to a debit card. The cards require a PIN number at every transaction, a security measure that makes most online shopping impossible. Only one company has the technology to process online EBT PIN transactions, and all retailers participating in USDA’s pilot are required to use it.

The retailers involved in USDA’s pilot programs present another concern for food and hunger advocates. SNAP recipients who live in most states in the pilot can only buy from Amazon and Walmart. Food and farm advocates say this setup favors two big companies and prevents SNAP recipients from shopping at other food retailers.

“Small businesses and small- to mid-sized farmers are the backbone of the U.S. economy, especially in rural communities,” says Wes King, senior policy specialist at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “Rather than exclusively support large multinational companies, the USDA should be actively including small businesses and small to mid-sized local farmers into these pilots.”

The program also excludes farmers who have shifted more of their sales online to compensate for the loss of wholesale buyers, like restaurants and schools, and the closure of farmers markets amid the pandemic. Liz Moran Stelk, executive director of the Illinois Stewardship Alliance, says that in Chicago, farmers and farmers markets are at the forefront of advocating on this issue.

“This is a barrier for food access for people,” she says. “In this moment, [allowing SNAP to be used online is] a very simple fix that could be profound for people, for local economies, for farmers, and for food security.”