The newest states added to the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP online purchasing pilot program are planning to roll out the service by the end of April or mid-May, according to internal documents and news reports. Meanwhile, more states are eager to join the program as the coronavirus pandemic highlights disparities in food access.
SNAP recipients in Florida, Idaho, Arizona, and California will soon have the option to buy groceries online from two retailers, Amazon and Walmart. Shopping will be limited to those retailers because the expedited nature of the rollout limited the states to retailers already approved by the Food and Nutrition Service, according to a memo circulated to county welfare directors in California. Walmart and Amazon have been part of the pilot program since it was first implemented.
The California memo states that online purchasing will be available to the state’s EBT cardholders on April 28. Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law and Poverty, has been working on bringing SNAP online in California for several years and says the SNAP recipients she works with are generally happy with the new option.
“This will really help people who are feeling left out and scared right now,” she says.
Florida’s SNAP recipients will be able to shop online beginning April 21, and the state says more retailers may join the pilot down the road. In Arizona, officials estimate the program will be operational next month. Idaho will roll out its program by May 17.
The spread of Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, has been a boon for online grocery shopping, but SNAP recipients in most places haven’t been able to access that service due to technical obstacles associated with Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) processing. The USDA’s pilot program for using SNAP online was created in the 2014 farm bill and has been rolling out slowly in a few states. Now the pace of adoption has quickened significantly as states rush to enable lower-income residents to shop from home.
Food access advocates in states where the pilot program is rolling out are encouraged about its implications for those in need.
“Helping Arizonans at risk of hunger use SNAP for online food purchases minimizes their exposure [to Covid-19] and allows much-needed flexibility in food access,” Ashley St. Thomas, public policy manager for the Association of Arizona Food Banks, told the Arizona Daily Star. “This online access to groceries will go a long way for a lot of people.”
The USDA announced on April 8 that Arizona and California would join the pilot program, and added Idaho and Florida on April 11. Several other states, including Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Missouri, have asked or plan to ask the agency to bring the pilot program to their residents.
Anti-hunger advocates have called for Congress to expand the program nationwide as part of any future coronavirus relief package. A petition to that effect sponsored by leaders from organizations including Hunger Free America, MAZON, and the Yale School of Medicine has accumulated more than 3,000 signatures.
The online pilot, though, isn’t perfect. For instance, SNAP money can’t be used for delivery fees, a common feature of online purchasing. According to the California memo, Amazon and Walmart offer free delivery on orders of more than $35. But smaller orders will be subject to delivery fees, which Bartholow says could be a major obstacle for lower-income shoppers.
“If you want SNAP recipients to broadly use online purchasing to support the social distancing efforts during the pandemic, supporting the delivery fee is definitely going to need to be something that happens,” she says.
While the program will likely address food security and health concerns for some SNAP recipients, it can still be improved, Bartholow says. Her prior efforts to enable the use of SNAP online included convening a roundtable of workers, SNAP recipients, retailers, and others to build a more inclusive model with diverse input. She says a better version of the program would be “truly representative of California’s diverse food system [and embody] our vision of justice and consumer protection.”
“There’s absolutely no way this is where we stop,” she says.