Here’s why that may be good for SNAP recipients.
By Dwyer Gunn
(Photo: Mario Tama/Getty Images)
Last week, the United States Department of Agriculture announced a small, two-year pilot program that will allow recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in seven states to use their benefits to purchase groceries online from a small group of online retailers (Amazon, FreshDirect, Safeway, ShopRite, Hy-Vee, Inc., Hart’s Local Grocers, and Dash’s Market). According to the USDA, the primary goal of the program, which is set to begin this summer, is to increase access to healthy foods for SNAP recipients.
“Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited,” said Tom Vilsack, the secretary of agriculture, in a press release. “We’re looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.”
In recent years, concern about so-called “food deserts”—low-income communities with easy access to corner stores and fast-food restaurants but not healthy, fresh food—has become a trendy cause among foodies, activists, and policymakers. Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative included an emphasis on food deserts, and, in 2010, the Obama administration launched the Healthy Food Financing Initiative, a program designed to encourage (through grants, loans, and tax incentives) full-service supermarkets to set up shop in low-income neighborhoods.
But these efforts have been somewhat stymied by conflicting evidence on whether low-income Americans do, in fact, struggle to access healthy food options. For starters, not everyone agrees that low-income, urban neighborhoods have fewer grocery stores than wealthier neighborhoods—several studies have found the opposite to be true. Furthermore, research looking at the relationship between grocery store proximity and diet on health outcomes have often failed to find much of a connection.
Most notably, in a paper published in 2014 by the journal Health Affairs, the researchers Steven Cummins, Ellen Flint, and Stephen A. Matthews looked at what happened after a new grocery store opened in a neighborhood in Philadelphia that had previously been considered a food desert. They found that “the intervention moderately improved residents’ perceptions of food accessibility” but had no effect on fruit and vegetable consumption or obesity, which they said suggested that “simply improving a community’s retail food infrastructure may not produce desired changes in food purchasing and consumption patterns.”
“We think that where healthy foods are available is a function of where people are demanding them,” says Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, the director of the Hamilton Project and an expert on the SNAP program. “I have not seen any evidence that I think is credible that there are large numbers of people who really want fresh foods and vegetables but can’t get them.”
Still, there are reasons to think the new pilot program might make it easier for some SNAP recipients to access healthy foods. Jerry Shannon, a geographer at the University of Georgia, interviewed 38 low-income Minneapolis residents between 2012 and 2013 about their food-buying practices. He also conducted in-depth analyses on where SNAP recipients from low-income neighborhoods spend their benefits.
“The focus was on trying to move from proximity as a measure of access, to practice,” Shannon says. “So focusing not so much on how close grocery stores are to people’s residential location but how people use the food sources around them.”
Shannon found that SNAP recipients often preferred to spend their benefits elsewhere, most often at suburban grocery stores that they perceived offered better food at better prices.
“In low-income areas, there was a significant outflow of benefits, even when grocery stores were present in the neighborhood,” Shannon says. “A lot of people wanted better grocery options closer to their home. There was one woman who lived across the street from a grocery store, [yet] she would drive six miles to a Walmart in the suburbs. We heard a lot of complaints about price being higher and quality being lower, and that being a reason some of those people avoided the nearby grocery stores.”
Shannon’s research also shows just how much time and energy low-income people spend purchasing food. Many of the subjects in his study did, as Michelle Obama once lamented, report having to strategize carefully about where to shop. They shopped at multiple places within their neighborhoods (ethnic grocers, local butchers, etc.), both for specific ingredients and to get the best deals, while also traveling many miles outside their neighborhood to access “better” grocery stores. Often, the latter trips required careful planning around ride-sharing or public transit, with shoppers preferring supermarkets requiring minimal walking and transfers between public transit vehicles.
In a paper published in GeoJournal last year, Shannon (with co-author W. Jay Christian) looked at the amount of time people in various income groups spend on both food shopping, and traveling to their food shopping destinations. They found that both travel time and shopping time were much larger for people in the lowest income group (making less than $25,000 a year).
“Both travel and stay times on food related tours were longest for these households and shortest for higher income groups, suggesting that the constraints of lower incomes — such as limited access to reliable transportation — increase the time and opportunity costs of food shopping,” Shannon and Christian wrote.
Online grocery shopping, of course, is a huge time saver and also eliminates the hassle of carrying mountains of groceries home on public transit. It’s also often not the cheapest option, and the pilot program does not allow SNAP benefits to be used for delivery charges.
“I think that there’s going to be an upper bound among SNAP recipients,” Schanzenbach says. “We do know that they’re very sensitive to prices, so I don’t think it’s going to be a big part of their shopping anytime soon, but I do think it’s sensible to experiment with it. And it could be really helpful for folks who really do live in food deserts or are confined to their homes for some reason.”