Food Aid Recipients Go Online to Amazon, Walmart to Avoid Virus

Americans getting federal food aid during the coronavirus pandemic are flocking to a pilot program that lets them buy groceries online in more than a dozen states.

The need for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients to shop online has skyrocketed as they have been trying to maintain social distancing to avoid exposure to Covid-19 since the outbreak started spreading nationwide in January. Enrollment in SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, has also climbed as more than 26 million Americans, thrown out of work, seek unemployment benefits.

“As more and more people move towards online shopping for groceries during this pandemic, it’s just not right that SNAP recipients must put themselves, their families, and store employees at greater risk if they want to access food,” said Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.). “This pandemic is a perfect example of why we should never wait for an emergency to invest in safety net programs such as SNAP.”

Photographer: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images
Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.)

The SNAP online pilot included in the 2014 farm law (Public Law 113-79) was launched in New York by the Agriculture Department last April. The program rapidly broadened since January to include the District of Columbia and 15 other states: Washington, Alabama, Iowa, Oregon, Nebraska, California, Arizona, Idaho, Florida, North Carolina, West Virginia, Texas, Missouri, Kentucky, and Vermont.

African Americans and Hispanics constitute about 42% of SNAP recipients, the Agriculture Department reports. The program also supports almost 20 million children and about 11 million Americans with disabilities, so online purchasing should open up to all states, McGovern and 63 other House Democrats said in a letter to Secretary Sonny Perdue.

‘Modernizing SNAP’

The pilot lets SNAP households purchase groceries online at authorized retailers, including two giants, Walmart Inc. and Amazon.com Inc. Some orders may qualify for home delivery, but federal benefits don’t cover delivery and service fees.

The Agriculture Department supports expanding SNAP purchases online, and is working with states and retailers interested in and able to participate, a department spokesperson said Monday. The responsibility is on state agencies, their third-party processors, and any retailers who wish to take part, the official said.

Historically, the major impediment to use of SNAP online has been lack of a secure method for PIN entry, the spokesperson said.

Such challenges are reason the online pilot should only function “temporarily during this emergency,” said one critic, Robert Rector, senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

“There’s extensive fraud in the food stamp program, and the cards are sold to people that are not the applicant,” he said. The online pilot “makes that more likely to occur.”

Brandon Lipps, deputy undersecretary of the Agriculture Department’s Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, disputed the charge.

“FNS works aggressively with its state and federal partners to prevent fraud and hold recipients and retailers accountable when they don’t follow the rules,” Lipps said in a statement Tuesday. “USDA has prioritized program integrity throughout the entire online purchasing pilot.”

The pilot is an opportunity to sort out technological issues for both retailers and vendors processing electronic benefits transfer cards, which receive SNAP benefits, said Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a progressive think tank.

Federal food assistance needs to be brought into the 21st century, he said.

“Modernizing SNAP makes sense for low-income people who need help,” Bolen said. “The pandemic and the economic fallout from the pandemic is a perfect example of where people will need some assistance, and this is a great way to do it.”

‘Eager To Expand’

Representatives of the pilot’s two major corporate retailers say the companies will back any future efforts by the department to expand the pilot to the rest of the country.

“This pilot program is a great step forward,” Walmart spokeswoman Molly Blakeman said in a statement Monday. “We are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery business.”

“Amazon is committed to making food accessible through online shopping,” said Kristina Herrmann, the company’s director of underserved populations. “We continue to work closely with the USDA as the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot grows to expand our capabilities in supporting underserved customers.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Megan U. Boyanton in Washington at mboyanton@bgov.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at phendrie@bgov.com; Robin Meszoly at rmeszoly@bgov.com

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