New Yorkers who receive food assistance from the federal government will be able to order and pay for groceries online for the first time, the Department of Agriculture announced Thursday.
Those taking part in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program who have electronic benefit transfer cards can start buying meats, produce and milk from Walmart and Amazon beginning today, and from ShopRite next week. The two-year pilot will eventually extend to those getting food assistance in Alabama, Nebraska, Iowa, New Jersey, Maryland, Oregon and Washington.
At a time when the shopping experience is increasingly shifting online, the pilot is a way to make sure that those who are lower income or who have difficulty getting to an actual store aren't left out, federal officials said.
“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food, by ordering and paying for groceries online,'' Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in a statement. "As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.”
Walmart has quickly ramped up its pickup and delivery service to compete with Amazon and others in the multibillion-dollar grocery space. "We don't think the way you pay should affect your access to the service,'' says spokeswoman Molly Blakeman.
ShopRite and Amazon will offer the online shopping option in and around New York City, while Walmart will be available for those living in upstate New York. More stores should come on board over the next few months, the USDA says.
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However, while the SNAP benefits will pay for eligible foods, they will not cover fees for having the products delivered. Walmart, for instance, charges delivery fees ranging from $7.95 to $9.95.
Fees are sometimes tacked on by stores to cover the increased cost of ferrying items to customers' front doors, says Ernest Baskin, assistant professor of food marketing at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia.
“The SNAP dollar may not stretch as far when all of these fees are taken into account and consumers may even have to supplement non-SNAP dollars,” Baskin said. “A way of making SNAP pay for delivery fees is raising the prices of the products more generally for those ordering online and incorporating delivery fees in those prices.”
Phil Lempert, founder of supermarketguru.com, which tracks industry news and trends, is also concerned about the logistics of delivery.
“One of the biggest problems that this pilot does not address is that for many recipients of SNAP benefits, they may not have a secure location to receive or store the deliveries of their groceries when they are not home,” he said. “In addition, the window to receive deliveries may interfere with their work schedule.”
Still, many SNAP participants live in food deserts – areas where supermarkets and fresh foods are scarce – Baskin says, making an online shopping option particularly appealing.
“A pilot like this will help them have access to a wider variety of fresh food choices,” he said. “Also, availability from major supermarket chains may help bring down costs as compared to buying products from a local convenience store for instance.”
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: New Yorkers who receive federal food assistance can now order groceries online