Most Americans on food stamps must shop at stores, risking coronavirus exposure

By Liz Crampton

Most of the 42 million Americans who receive food stamps aren’t allowed to use them to shop for groceries online — and some lawmakers and state governments are rushing to change that as the newly jobless flood onto the rolls of the nutrition assistance program.

Only six states allow online purchases with benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. Of those, Alabama and Nebraska launched online shopping only in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic erupted.

The situation highlights how low-income people are at increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus. Food stamp recipients include many people who are especially vulnerable, such as the elderly and people with disabilities. Now, nonprofit groups are lobbying Congress and the Agriculture Department to relax rules and encourage a rapid expansion of online shopping and delivery options.

“USDA should allow it and encourage it,” Lisa Davis, senior vice president of No Kid Hungry, an organization that works on child hunger issues, said of expanding SNAP online to more states. “We should let them go as quickly as they can because people need that flexibility.”

Yet it's unclear how quickly USDA will be able to move. A department spokesperson told POLITICO that the department will work with states to help them offer online shopping through the SNAP program. California is one state that has requested permission from USDA to build a program.

The spokesperson said there are "multiple, vital steps" states need to take before beginning online grocery sales. "Each state, its EBT processor, and potential retailers present their own mix of challenges,” he said.

Congress authorized a pilot program for online shopping six years ago, but it took years to get it off the ground as officials grappled with significant technical challenges. Most SNAP recipients pay with electronic benefits transfer, or EBT, cards at stores but buying online requires adding extra layers of verification to prevent fraud or improper payments.

New York became the first state to introduce a program for online grocery orders only last year. It was followed by Washington, Alabama, Iowa and Oregon. Nebraska’s program launched last week. Maryland and New Jersey were also named as participants in the pilot program, but they haven’t started offering online ordering yet.

Food stamp recipients who live in states with online programs are also limited to shopping at major retailers. Amazon and Walmart are the primary retailers serving states with online systems. The department vetted retailers based on who was equipped to handle secure processing of EBT cards.

SNAP benefits can’t be used to cover the cost of delivery or service fees, which can add up when the average SNAP household receives about $250 per month. USDA also said it's working on guidance for additional sellers who want to expedite their participation in the pilot.

Alabama moved up the introduction of SNAP online ordering statewide because of concerns about how recommendations to stay home affects people’s ability to buy food, said Brandon Hardin, director of the Food Assistance Division at the state’s department of human resources.

Wright’s Market, a local grocer, started serving a portion of Alabama last month and the program expanded to other vendors and the rest of the state when the pandemic spread, he said.

“We feel like it’s a great option to help ensure social distancing measures, help folks that qualify for our program have different options in grocery store delivery methods,” Hardin said. “It’s a great tool considering the current environment right now.”

States are preparing for an influx of SNAP recipients as the economy craters from massive closures across industries that have led to millions of layoffs.

Hardin said that Alabama typically receives 28,000 SNAP applications processed online per month. But over a 10-day period at the end of March — right when many people began applying for unemployment benefits — the department saw 24,000 applications.

Washington state, which was one of the first places to be hit by the pandemic, has seen a similar increase in signups, and officials expect participation in online ordering to rise as the outbreak continues, said Babs Roberts, director of the Community Services Division. Application rates for the state’s food assistance programs have soared about 80 percent in the last two weeks, she said.

“The program itself frankly from my point of view is probably long overdue,” Roberts said. “People have been using credit cards and debit cards for a number of years, and I love that this program brings that same access and opportunity for low-income individuals. It just feels very equitable to be able to do this.”

Members of Congress are trying to increase access to food delivery bought with food stamps during the pandemic beyond USDA’s online pilot program. Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.) introduced a bill that would encourage retailers to deliver groceries to SNAP participants by allowing for the EBT card to be swiped at their homes or when the order is picked up at the store.

It would also authorize public-private partnerships between USDA and authorized SNAP retailers to support grocery delivery and provide $500 million in funding through state agencies to reimburse retailers for grocery delivery fees for SNAP participants.

Farmers dealing with dried-up revenue could also benefit from wider online purchasing with SNAP, said Wes King, senior policy specialist for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, a nonprofit that promotes local farming.

“Local farmers have responded by rapidly adopting new models and approaches to getting their products to consumers, including online sales and delivery options,” he said.

“Expanding online SNAP beyond large supermarket chains would be a huge boost to small and mid-sized local farmers in their efforts to adapt to the new world we find ourselves and ensure everyone in their communities continue to have access to fresh healthy local food, including SNAP customers,” King said.

Democratic lawmakers and lobbyists are also continuing to push for more money to SNAP, seeking a 15 percent boost in benefits in the next anticipated emergency relief package as a staggering number of people are filing for unemployment and may need food assistance.

“As we look at all of the different efforts across the United States to make sure low-income families are being fed, it becomes clear to me that SNAP is absolutely the first responder,” Davis said.