When the coronavirus first hit, Miranda Wilt knew a grocery store run could be fatal to her children.
Both 10-year-old Aiden and 8-year-old Rosie are on the autism spectrum and legally disabled. Wilt, a 35-year-old single mom, said she's too scared to leave the house herself, let alone go outside with her kids, who can't wear face masks.
She turned to online grocery shopping to stay safe, but her monthly SNAP allotment of $55 barely covers the family's essential needs, and that's before the tip and delivery fee.
"I have no other choice. I have a child who has a disease that has no treatment and no cure," Wilt said.
The federal government has said Americans should stay home and buy groceries online, leading to a 300% explosion in online food shopping. But a majority of Americans who depend on food stamps have no choice but to shop in person because the federal government allows online shopping with SNAP benefits only in limited circumstances in 47 states. For those who are able to shop on the web, the costs can be shocking for families who barely have enough to eat in part because SNAP benefits cannot be used to pay for delivery fees or tips.
"Groceries have just gone up dramatically, your milk, your eggs," Wilt said. "You're looking at $15 for a delivery fee."
Of 38 million Americans receiving food stamps, only 1.4 million have been able to purchase food online since 2019, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture began allowing SNAP recipients to shop for food on the web under a limited pilot program.
On Friday, President Joe Biden signed an executive order calling on the USDA to expand and extend federal nutrition assistance programs to help millions of Americans who have become unemployed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, but the order made no mention of online food shopping access. Last week, Biden called to extend SNAP benefits until the end of the year as part of his proposed $1.9 trillion stimulus package to Congress.
With more than 414,000 COVID-19 deaths and climbing in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend people avoid shopping for groceries in person. Leslie M. Kantor, professor at Rutgers School of Public Health in New Jersey, said new contact tracing out of the United Kingdom showed the most frequent location people had visited before testing positive for the coronavirus was a supermarket.
50 million Americans struggle with food insecurity
The coronavirus didn't cause the country's hunger problem, but it has made it much worse. Before the pandemic, more than 35 million people struggled with food insecurity. Now that number is closer to 50 million, and it's worse among people of color, according to a recent report by Feeding America, a hunger relief organization. In many cases, people living on the poverty line – defined as $26,174 for a family of four – are essential workers, don't have health insurance or live in multigenerational homes, factors that all make them more vulnerable to COVID-19.
Thirty-one percent of U.S. households, or roughly 40 million people, buy groceries online, but less than 5% of people on SNAP can afford to do so.
And the price of food has only gone up as the pandemic has kept workers at home. Americans now spend on average $184 on groceries each week, up from $159 before the outbreak. About 48% of shoppers reported paying more for items.
USDA's online grocery pilot for SNAP recipients is available only through Amazon, Walmart, Aldi and a few other retailers sprinkled across the country. That does not include smaller community stores, farmers markets or discounters where cents on the dollar usually go further. The biggest challenge is that the Agriculture Department must approve every store in each state to take payment through a PIN system, a process that can take a full year and has created a huge backlog.
As part of the $900 billion COVID-19 stimulus passed last month, Congress allotted $5 million for technical support to the USDA to expand online food programs. But no changes have been made to absorb the extra costs associated with buying food online despite the public health emergency.
SNAP recipients say it's too expensive to shop online
Virginia Hodge, 44, of Newark, Ohio, was laid off from her job in March. Since her unemployment benefits ran out, she has been feeding her three kids PB&J every day to stretch her $46 a week in SNAP dollars.
Hodge, who has Crohn's disease, a disorder that attacks the digestive system and is treated with immunosuppressants, placed an online order only once after a flare-up that landed her at the hospital for 17 days. Hodge said there is no way she could pay $20 in tip and delivery every week when she's struggling to keep power, water and heat on in the dead of winter.
"That's $80," said Hodge of a month's worth of delivery fees. "That's my water bill."
Hodge said her doctor won't let her go back to work until she is vaccinated against the virus, which in Ohio might not be until the summer. If food shopping online was more affordable, she said, she wouldn't shop in a panic week after week, trying to avoid crowds or coming in contact with someone who isn't wearing a mask properly.
SNAP recipients purchasing food online can spend more than a third of their total benefits – anywhere from $45 to $98 – on one purchase because of higher food costs and limited inventory, according to exclusive data shared with USA TODAY obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests by unBox, a student-led organization based in California working to address food insecurity and policy.
Online shopping with food stamps peaked in June right before states began reopening from COVID-19 quarantine restrictions, in some cases up to 19% in states like Kentucky, then stagnated because of the many barriers to access, researchers said.
But researchers said there is very little data on who is using food stamps to buy food online.
The lack of data has made it hard for policymakers and administrators to know how to allocate resources and make sure the USDA's pilot is successful, said Charlie Hoffs, unBox's co-founder.
Retailers provide limited options for SNAP clients
In an email to USA TODAY, Chris Rogers, vice president of retail at Instacart, declined to share how many SNAP users use the platform but said that “the program has exceeded our expectations.”
Rogers said the company acknowledges how delivery and pickup fees could be difficult for the country’s most economically vulnerable families. In hopes to help subsidize costs for SNAP beneficiaries, Instacart started waiving delivery fees in December for the "first three EBT orders for each customer with a valid EBT card associated with their account" until March 16.
At the moment, Instacart allows customers paying with food stamps to purchase food only at Aldi. Rogers said Instacart has lobbied the USDA to approve more retailers on the app.
With Amazon, SNAP beneficiaries customers can access more than 100,000 items and get free shipping on orders over $25. SNAP beneficiaries also have complimentary access to Amazon Fresh with free shipping on orders over $35 in most states.
But many SNAP users live in low-income neighborhoods that are outside these delivery zones.
That's the case for Jackie Klade, 36, of Wasau, Wisconsin, who can't find a store to deliver groceries free in her hometown.
Klade is the mother of 11-year-old twins with autism, one of whom had a pacemaker put in last year. Her son's doctor prescribed a strict diet of vegetables and legumes to treat his pediatric heart disease.
"I can't feed my kids pasta or cans of Spaghettios," she said.
Before the pandemic, she worked part-time at a kitchen and was receiving $37 a month in SNAP benefits. Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat, extended the maximum amount to households in October, upping her allotment to about $450 a month.
Without the emergency SNAP allotment, Klade said, "it would be back to the food pantry for us."
Some lawmakers have made it their priority to improve healthy food options for SNAP recipients. Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, a Democrat, proposed legislation in July that would create an online portal and app that would allow more discounters, smaller retailers and farmers to sell online to Americans paying with SNAP benefits.
"This important step will help millions of people safely put food on the table, especially in rural areas and from smaller community retailers,” Durbin said.
In Texas, Wilt said the past few months have taken a toll, especially after her home health aide quit in March. Unable to work or send the children back to school, she has had to manage both kids' education and medical care virtually.
Her youngest, Rosie, is one of 26 known people in the world – and the only one in Texas – with a rare mutation of the USP7 gene that impedes normal bodily functions. As a result, she's nonverbal and has physical and developmental challenges that make her extremely high-risk for COVID-19.
Wilt said she's waiting for the government to look out for families like hers, who are counting dollars every month to feed their children while trying to avoid a deadly plague.
"They have us on a ball and chain," she said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: President Biden increased SNAP, but many can't buy groceries online