Online grocery shopping becoming available to a quarter of SNAP recipients

Acting virtually overnight, the Trump administration added California and Arizona on Wednesday to the list of states where SNAP recipients can purchase groceries online for home delivery, a step that could reduce their exposure to the coronavirus. Five dozen House Democrats urged the administration to go a step further and make online SNAP purchases available nationwide.

With the addition of California and Arizona, it will be an option in eight states, with a combined 10 million SNAP participants, a quarter of national food stamp rolls. The USDA said it would consider requests from other states for the service. SNAP does not cover delivery costs. Other methods to reduce recipients’ time in public, such as “pay at pickup” for groceries ordered on the internet, are available now, it said.

“Enabling people to purchase foods online will go a long way in helping Americans follow CDC social-distancing guidelines and help slow the spread of the coronavirus,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who oversees SNAP.

With millions of people out of work due to stay-at-home orders and a recession looming, enrollment in SNAP is rising. At latest count, 37.2 million low-income people, one in nine Americans, used food stamps. Enrollment is highest during times of economic distress.

“As federal, state, and local governments expand social distancing measures to reduce transmission of Covid-19, online purchases of food have become increasingly common,” said 64 House Democrats in a letter to Perdue. “We again urge you to immediately expand the Online Purchasing Pilot to all states and additional retailers.”

To take advantage of online purchasing, SNAP recipients need internet access and proximity to a USDA-approved retailer that can process and deliver the purchases, said Ellen Vollinger of the anti-hunger Food Research and Action Center. “They [SNAP participants] potentially have it,” she said when asked about the expansion of the program.

USDA officials reported progress in two other areas. First, approval of state-level “Pandemic EBT” plans will begin this week, said Deputy Agriculture Undersecretary Brandon Lipps. P-EBT was authorized by Congress last month to help low-income families whose school-age children lost access to free or reduced-price meals because of school closures.

And SNAP recipients in 48 states will receive an additional $1.7 billion in benefits because lawmakers voted to provide the maximum monthly benefit to everyone in the program, said Lipps. Usually, about 60 percent of households receive less than the maximum benefit. The average benefit, calculated under a formula that takes household income into account, is $121 per person, per month.

SNAP benefits should be raised by 15 percent — “strong additional support for families … to help put food on the table,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer in a four-point list of proposals for an interim coronavirus relief bill. A 15 percent increase would be equal to $25 a month per individual. The 2009 economic stimulus package included a 17 percent increase.

Perdue took no position on a 15 percent increase — “The White House may have an opinion” — and said he believed SNAP “families are being well fed.”

It was a year ago in the New York City area that the USDA inaugurated a test of digital grocery shopping for SNAP. The pilot project is active in Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York State, Oregon, and Washington State (Nebraska joined the program on April 1). Between them, those states have about 5.2 million SNAP recipients. California has 4.1 million recipients and Arizona has roughly 800,000.

“We do expect them to be up and running by the end of the month, or even sooner,” said Lipps, referring to California and Arizona.

Amazon and Walmart are taking part in online sales in the original six states. A smaller-scale retailer is part of the pilot in Alabama and New York State.

Under the “pay at purchase” approach, SNAP recipients order groceries online and pay with the EBT card when they arrive at the store to pick up their food.