Food deserts, particularly low-income urban or rural communities without a nearby supermarket, were a hot topic throughout Obama’s presidency.
Let’s Move, Michelle Obama’s major campaign to prevent kid obesity, including new grocery store construction.
So far in 2011, the federal government has provided approximately $267 million in grants and loans to assist establish new stores and modernizing existing markets. And the feds will give at least $4 million more in grants in 2022.
More than a decade after the initiative to distribute fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income areas began, the food desert is nearing its end. This is not the result of all that work.
As online grocery delivery services develop, the issue of proximity to stores becomes moot. This debate has become a distraction from initiatives that could truly improve the health of those living in poverty, thanks to online grocery delivery services.
In this example, raising SNAP benefits would allow people to afford better food.
The first grocery delivery service, Peapod, emerged in a few locations in the 1990s, and Instacart launched in 2012. Grocery delivery is now common.
Grocery delivery services serve over 90% of USDA-designated food deserts (and 96 percent of food deserts are in urban areas).
Grocery delivery is also becoming more accessible to low-income families. In 2019, SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, began accepting electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards from SNAP participants in select states.
In 2020, the USDA accelerated the program as online shopping became a way to avoid a potentially fatal Covid infection. In August 2020, nearly every state accepted EBT online, compared to only 15 states in the trial in 2020.
During the outbreak, SNAP online usage grew rapidly. For the first month of data, February 2020, around $3 million was spent online. By 2020, SNAP users will have redeemed $1.5 billion online.
This high rate of use happened despite major obstacles such as delivery fees, concerns about the quality of food purchased online, and the limited number of retailers accepting online EBT payments in 2020.
In 2020, the $1.5 billion represents only 3% of total SNAP spending, but utilization is likely to expand as more online businesses take SNAP and EBT tech improves, such as clearly identifying what items are SNAP-eligible.
Internet access and literacy are issues for some shoppers, but not many: over 75% of low-income people currently own smartphones.
While there are no statistics on how many SNAP beneficiaries in food deserts use their benefits online, most should be able to soon as choices for grocery delivery utilizing EBT continue to proliferate.
Third-party apps like Instacart, Forage and Rosie are expanding the number of online shops accepting SNAP. Forage is a payment processing service built exclusively to allow shops to take EBT online.
Forage recently announced a relationship with online retailer Farmstead to accept EBT payments. The Rosie app, like Instacart, targets users who shop at local and independent supermarkets.
And Instacart has temporarily removed delivery fees for customers paying with SNAP.
Food deserts are irrelevant with grocery delivery since the distance to the store is immaterial. It may have other advantages. Consumers can buy from any grocery store, from superstores to neighborhood stores to specialty markets, without concern for trip time or transportation.
They’ll know their bill upfront and can apply coupons to their purchases with a single click. They can also order online and pick up in person to avoid minor order shipping expenses.
However, it’s likely that SNAP users’ eating patterns won’t change due to the greater ease of access. It’s long been known that low-income communities never lacked grocery outlets.
According to the USDA, low-income city dwellers are “closer to supermarkets than moderate- and high-income residents.” Food insecurity wasn’t causing the diet-related chronic illnesses that disproportionately impact the poor.
- When the Emergency Snap Benefits Stop, How Much Food Stamps Will You Receive?
- Does Denny’s Accept Ebt/food Stamps for Snap Benefits? | Viral Updates!
- In North Carolina, More Snap Benefits Are Due to Expire on April 15!
That means increased grocery access won’t help disparate diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease rates.
In the end, our food choices are determined by our financial resources, not our store access. “When salaries and family budgets are tight, people turn to cheaper but more calorie-dense foods,” says dietitian Adam Drewnowski.
Drewnowski says high-quality proteins, nutritious grains, and products are first to go when money is tight. And SNAP participants are strapped for cash.
Pre-pandemic SNAP benefits were $4.25 per person per day. In October 2021, the average benefit was $5.45 per day, or $1.81 each meal.
According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, those with greater salaries will spend three times more on healthier foods.
Higher household income is linked to healthier eating habits, such as consuming less sugar and more whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. “Improving food affordability may have the largest impact,” says researcher Eric Brandt.
People need more money if food cannot be made more inexpensively. Building new stores to help eradicate food deserts would be better spent on increasing SNAP benefits or at least defraying delivery expenses.
People clearly no longer need good food nearby, but rather the resources to buy it themselves.