Online grocery shopping is becoming more popular in the United States—roughly 70% of U.S. families completed one or more online grocery orders each year—but for the 46 million Americans who rely on a government program to pay for groceries, this alternative is mostly out of reach.
However, the federal government may take a number of actions to make it simpler for people who are food insecure to buy goods online.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children are two significant government food assistance programs managed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (WIC).
Benefits are sent via an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, which recipients may use to pay for food. Unfortunately, few grocery businesses accept EBT for SNAP online purchasing, and none take it for WIC online shopping.
Furthermore, individuals cannot use their existing SNAP benefits to pay for any shipping, local delivery, or pick-up expenses, and some people do not have a separate digital payment option to cover these costs.
As a result, many SNAP and WIC participants are unable to take advantage of online grocery’s convenience, time savings, and product and price transparency, or utilize online shopping to identify eligible goods and stick to a budget.
In the last several years, the government has made some headway in addressing this issue. In 2019, the USDA began the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot to see if utilizing EBT to pay for online food purchases was feasible.
Due to the pandemic, the experiment, which began with eight shops in eight states, quickly expanded, eventually reaching 90 percent of SNAP families by August 2020.
Despite its wide reach, internet purchases accounted for less than 4% of all SNAP benefit redemption in the fiscal year 2021, despite the fact that online expenditure climbed to 13% of overall food spending in the US.
There are three significant actions the government may take to increase SNAP and WIC clients’ access to online food shopping.
To begin, the USDA should create clear rules for states to follow in order to establish WIC online buying programs.
Guidelines should be based on the findings of SNAP’s online purchasing trial and address WIC-specific problems such as product availability, replacement, and stocking restrictions.
Establishing federal guidance would aid states in making the move to online WIC purchases, allowing six million Americans to shop for groceries online.
The next step is for Congress to enact legislation allowing SNAP to be used for online grocery shopping. The Expanding SNAP Options Act of 2021 would create a technical help center and a secure EBT redemption site to encourage retailers to use online SNAP purchases.
This bill would make the e-commerce authorization process easier for businesses by eliminating the requirement for them to implement these features themselves. Increased grocery retailer alternatives would provide participants with more flexibility and options for benefit redemption.
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Finally, the USDA should start a short-term pilot program to see how enabling SNAP users to pay for online food delivery expenses with their existing benefits affects them.
While some food delivery businesses have dropped these costs for SNAP recipients—Instacart provides a short free delivery trial, and Amazon offers free grocery delivery for EBT orders without requiring a Prime membership—the majority of shops still charge $5 to $10 fees.
Many people, such as the 25% of SNAP recipients who are elderly or disabled, or consumers without access to credit or debit cards, could benefit from the ability to pay these fees with their existing benefits, giving them more options and flexibility in how they use their benefits and increasing access to groceries.
The 12 percent of Americans who live in food deserts may benefit from online grocery shopping (census tracts where a significant percentage of low-income residents live more than one mile in urban areas or 10 miles in rural areas from the nearest grocery store).
Many SNAP beneficiaries will likely prefer to spend their meager government help on groceries rather than delivery fees, but giving them this option for the country’s most important anti-hunger program may provide them more flexibility and dignity.
Policymakers should take more measures to modernize nutritional assistance programs so that users may access online purchasing choices to guarantee Americans have access to good, affordable food.
These actions would assist to enhance benefit use, expand consumer alternatives, and better serve people who are food insecure.