Online SNAP grocery shopping tainted by ‘manipulative’ tactics, says report

State after state joined a USDA pilot program this spring that allows SNAP participants to buy groceries online as a way to reduce the chance of contracting Covid-19. By late May, half of SNAP recipients lived in a state where online grocery shopping was offered. But now, said a think tank report released on Thursday, SNAP shoppers face “an often manipulative and nontransparent grocery marketplace” when they shop via the internet.

On their homepages and digital “shelves,” e-grocers often promote brands and products that partner with them, which can offer high exposure to processed foods and beverages and encourage impulse purchases of higher-priced or unhealthy foods, said the Center for Digital Democracy. The center also said the USDA failed to assure adequate protection of the personal data of SNAP shoppers, so participants could be targeted by other marketers.

The report calls on the USDA to “take an aggressive role in developing meaningful and effective safeguards” for privacy and to bar manipulative practices before the online shopping system moves beyond its trial phase.

In late May, online shopping was available in 18 states — representing 53 percent of SNAP enrollment — including the four largest-enrollment states: California, Texas, Florida, and New York. Walmart and Amazon were the only retailers in 16 of those states to sell SNAP groceries online.