Joanne is a 68-year-old resident of Eugene, Oregon, who has worked as a fundraiser and scientist. Like almost 5 million American seniors, she counts on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) to help pay the grocery bill. Historically, the program required people to shop in-store, but with COVID-19 that has changed with a lightning speed rollout of online grocery shopping nearly nationwide. Joanne says the new option features its share of complications despite its good intentions. That may be one reason why many eligible SNAP recipients are avoiding it.
SNAP provides a monthly supplement to low- and no-income residents to purchase groceries. In 2018, the average SNAP recipient received about $127 per month in benefits. The endeavor, operated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), is the largest federal nutrition program in the United States. Last year, SNAP fed 38 million Americans, the vast majority of whom are children, the elderly, and disabled adults.
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USDA launched the online SNAP pilot in April 2019 in New York — a state with more than 2.6 million residents enrolled in the federal nutrition safety net program — with three retailers: Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite. Although rollout to other states wasn’t planned to begin until after the two-year test pilot, by March 2020, administrators faced pressure to fast-track implementation nationwide to allow SNAP recipients a safer, socially distanced way of shopping during the pandemic.
With its recent expansion to 44 states (including the District of Columbia), USDA says online SNAP is now accessible to more than 90 percent of users — or around 34 million people — who rely on the social safety net program each year. Another three states were approved to participate and are in the process of implementing the program for their eligible populations.
According to the federal agency, since online SNAP’s widespread implementation due to COVID-19, usership has increased. A spokesperson from USDA noted via written request that in March 2020, close to 35,000 SNAP households shopped online. By June, more than 800,000 households were participating. While that is a dramatic increase, it is only 4 percent of the households receiving SNAP.
Despite recognition of the program’s importance in the face of the pandemic, users, food security advocates, and legislators have raised flags. Experts like Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Washington D.C.-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that though extensive research on the impact of online SNAP is yet to be conducted, anecdotally his organization has heard from a number of users about issues with learning about, accessing, and fully utilizing the online purchasing and delivery resource. Additionally, users must navigate order minimums and delivery fees as the USDA prohibits the use of SNAP funding for these costs.
Bolen points to the lack of information available on the program in communities with high SNAP eligibility as one factor for potentially low participation rates. Generally, when a state is added, a press release follows with pick-up by local media. However, the trickle down to users has been spotty depending on state-level implementation and the communication resources at their disposal.
In Massachusetts, food advocate and SNAP user Diane Sullivan said the state generally does a good job keeping in touch with participants about SNAP and has even implemented new ways of doing so during the pandemic, such as texting. However, with the struggle to keep up with a constant flux of changing policy and a growing participant list, Sullivan added that she didn’t recall receiving a text from the state about the online option when it became available in late May.
In addition to finding out about online shopping, sometimes it’s hard to find the foods users want. Joanne referenced the hour and a half she recently spent compiling a cart of only 12 items eligible for the electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards issued to participants. “Looking at Amazon,” Joanne said about one of the program’s two approved retailers in her state, “if you put ‘EBT’ in their search line, you have to go down seven rows before you find something that I consider whole food. Generally, what I find is that most of the things on here are processed food, which are not useful to me.”
Joanne said she prefers to spend her SNAP dollars — which amount to the minimum monthly benefit of $16 per month — in person at stores and farmers’ markets that not only sell whole foods more to her liking, but where she can benefit from EBT matching programs that double her benefits when they are spent at qualifying markets.
Amazon and Walmart currently dominate online SNAP as the only shopping option in 38 of the 44 states approved to participate. The CBPP’s Bolen explained that the lack of diversity in retailers may be discouraging uptake. “Having only those options might not mean a lot if you don’t live near a Walmart and you’ve never thought of Amazon as a place to buy your groceries,” he explained. For this reason, in July, U.S. Senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin of Illinois introduced a bill in the Senate appealing for the expansion of retailers participating in the program.
Additionally, low-income Americans are more likely to lack the technological resources to access the internet. Data from the Pew Research Center shows that 29 percent of adults with household incomes below $30,000 per year do not own a smartphone, 44 percent do not have broadband internet, and 46 percent lack a computer. The Center notes that in nearly all households with incomes over $100,000 per year, these resources are consistently available.
From her lens on the ground, Sullivan said the online option is “on the right track” but it needs amending to ensure challenges facing recipients are addressed with their concerns in mind, not the bottom lines of the billion-dollar corporations currently benefitting from the economic stimulus.
“You have to engage people with lived experience in the process of designing these programs and implementing them,” Sullivan says. “We are on the ground and have information on when these systems work or when they don’t. We need to be brought into conversations around solutions in a more meaningful way.”