Nearly all 50 states have opted into an online purchasing pilot for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). While the program offers a safer way to shop and has the potential to overcome geographic barriers to food and nutrition insecurity, food system activists worry the pilot could fall short when it comes to equitable access for rural communities.
Mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill, the pilot is testing the feasibility and implications of allowing retail food stores to accept SNAP benefits online. Eight states were selected in 2017 for the initial roll-out of the pilot. But as the COVID-19 pandemic drove retailers and shoppers to increasingly turn to online ordering and home delivery for groceries, USDA prioritized expanding the pilot to more states. Currently, all states but Alaska, Louisiana, and Montana have implemented an expedited online purchasing program.
In general, Michel Nischan, co-founder and chairman of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit dedicated to addressing nutrition insecurity, thinks the ability to use SNAP benefits online “has real powerful potential.”
Geographic access is often a barrier for consumers to buy healthy food, Nischan tells Food Tank. Although a person may be able to buy food at a nearby corner store, the vendor may not offer healthy options, like fresh fruits and vegetables — and stores that do may be miles away.
Chloe Eberhardt, the senior program manager for SNAP at Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon, agrees with Nischan that transportation is often an obstacle for SNAP participants to use their benefits.
Oregon was one of the eight states selected for the initial pilot, but its program didn’t officially launch until March 2020 — right as social distancing restrictions were enacted to combat COVID-19.
Eberhardt tells Food Tank that while online purchasing and delivery is important for equitable access to food, “there are a lot of barriers that make the pilot not truly meet the needs of the community.”
One of the main challenges preventing SNAP users from taking advantage of the pilot is lack of internet access.
“The highest amount of SNAP usage is rural, and the highest prevalence of lack of broadband internet access is rural,” Nischan tells Food Tank.
The USDA recorded just under 42 million individual SNAP participants, as of February 12. And aggregated data from the Food Research & Action Center shows that from 2012-16, participation in the program was highest among households in rural and small town counties — about 31 percent of participants.
Another issue with the pilot, Eberhardt says, is users are charged a delivery fee that isn’t covered by SNAP. And in Oregon, there are only two retailers — Walmart and Amazon — leaving options limited for SNAP participants. Other states have additional regional retailers approved, including ALDI, H-E-B, and Food Lion.
Additionally, the delivery range is limited, so the program is not accessible to much of rural Oregon, Eberhardt tells Food Tank.
“I haven’t heard of many people using it,” Eberhardt says of the pilot. “It’s a good intention and something to build off of, but I also know there’s a lot of things that could be improved.”
The first thing Eberhardt recommends is to waive the fee, or provide funding to cover it.
To expand the pilot to a wider variety of retailers, including smaller, independent vendors and farmers markets, Eberhardt suggests they be provided with the technology necessary to process SNAP’s Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards online, which require a pin to use.
Technology could be key in improving the accessibility of the online pilot, as well as SNAP in general. Nischan and Eberhardt envision a future for SNAP on a mobile app.
While recipients can apply for SNAP through a desktop browser, a mobile version would allow sign up from a smartphone. That’s helpful, Eberhardt says, because more people can access the internet through a smartphone thanks to data plans.
To make a SNAP app even more feasible, Nischan suggests providing participants with a free data plan. Plus, the app’s data could be analyzed for fraud or abuse, Nischan tells Food Tank.
Separate from the online purchasing pilot, Eberhardt and Nischan agree the most needed change to SNAP is more funding — and that’s only become more urgent during the pandemic. A December COVID-19 relief bill boosted SNAP benefit levels by 15 percent. That’s a change that needs to stick around after the pandemic, according to both.
“The disproportionate impact of the pandemic on communities of color, women, Black and Latinx communities is indicative of a broken system,” Eberhardt tells Food Tank. “To me, addressing this and advocating for the beneficial changes we’ve seen is a minimum to increase the support we have for each other and our communities, and try to move towards more equitable opportunity.”