About 38 million Americans receive vouchers to buy groceries at supermarkets and farmers' markets through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Starting this week, some participants will also be able to shop for food online, at Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite.
The two-year pilot program is starting in New York, and will soon expand to Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington State. United States Department of Agriculture officials say this program could revolutionize access for its participants, more than half of whom experience food insecurity. "We look forward to monitoring how these pilots increase food access and customer service to those we serve, specifically those who may experience challenges in visiting brick and mortar stores," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement on Thursday.
Here's what the change could mean for food security among SNAP recipients.
SNAP and Food Deserts
One in seven Americans participates in SNAP, receiving an average of $150 every month to buy groceries, according to the most recent USDA data.
Around one-fifth of these recipients have very low levels of food security. Many also live in areas that the USDA defines as food deserts, meaning they don't have access to fresh produce, often due to a lack of grocery stores and farmers' markets. For these recipients, food prices and travel costs can offset the additional income from SNAP. Recipients can now use SNAP at 7,377 farmers markets across all 50 states, but the USDA has struggled to update the technology used to make SNAP payments at the markets. In addition, many recipients are unaware of the options or unable to make purchases in markets, according to the non-profit Farmers Market Coalition.
"For SNAP beneficiaries living in food deserts, it is often the simplest—or sometimes the only—option to use their EBT card (a debit card on which benefits are loaded) at convenience stores, which often have a sparse supply of produce and fresh protein," Brookings Institution research analyst Jack Karsten wrote in 2017.
Despite these challenges, SNAP participants already spend the bulk of their budgets on vegetables, fruits, grain products, meat, and meat alternatives, as opposed to packaged foods. So how would online ordering help?
Improving Supermarket Access
According to a 2012 USDA report, about one-third of the low-income households participating in SNAP usually shop for food within a mile of their home. But some have to go much farther, especially in rural areas, where the average distance to a participant's most-used store can exceed 14 miles. Because of this challenge, rural recipients only redeem 53 percent of their benefits. (In cities, it's 64 percent.)
Research also shows that disability and chronic illness or pain affect food access, particularly for people who live far from grocery stores. According to the USDA, at least 6 percent of SNAP participants—about 2.2 million people—are non-elderly adults receiving disability payments from the Social Security Administration.
Ordering and buying food online could save such participants a long and often costly trip to the store. Under the pilot program, recipients will be able to access Amazon's grocery services without a Prime account, the Associated Press reports. That includes AmazonFresh, which offers fresh produce, meat, and dairy, although the online retailer will not cover the cost of delivery. Of course, there are other challenges: Recipients might struggle to pay delivery fees, or lack high-speed Internet access.