The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently chose seven states, including Maryland, Iowa, New York, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington and Pennsylvania, to partake in a two-year pilot program, which will allow food stamp recipients to buy groceries online. The Department is responsible for overseeing SNAP, a supplemental nutritional food program, designed for low-income people.
Amazon, Safeway and ShopRite will soon begin accepting SNAP for online purchases of food. The program will launch this summer, giving the grocery chains and Amazon enough time to make the necessary preparations.
The USDA hopes the program will make healthy foods accessible to individuals that reside in areas referred to as “food deserts”. Public health officials and anti-hunger groups support the program, because they feel it could improve the health of Maryland’s neediest citizens. Chronic conditions such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and diabetes has been linked to the lack of healthy food.
Last year over 43 million low-income people received SNAP benefits nationwide. According to a 2015 city report, nearly a third of Baltimore’s population or over 200,000 utilize food stamps to buy food items. The report also showed that 1 in every 4 residents resides in a food desert area.
“Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited,” USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release on Friday. “We’re looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.”
Some officials and citizens are concerned that the program may hurt local brick-and-mortar supermarkets and small groceries. These establishments have existed in the neighborhoods, where large grocery chains have left or avoided. The president of the Maryland Retailers Associations, Cailey Locklair Tolle, said she has received calls from members, who are concerned about losing business.
“Any time you tinker with any part of the revenue for a grocery store, you can literally send them in the red very quickly,” Tolle said.
She also went on to say that grocery stores tend to have narrow profit margins of 1 percent on average.
A stipulation to test online shopping with SNAP was included in the 2014 Farm Bill. However, online retailers were not technologically prepared to accept SNAP debit card payments, so the pilot program was delayed.
Since 2010, the Baltimore Health Department has operated an online grocery store, but consumers had to pay for their purchases in person, because of limited payment options. More retailers will be added to the program in the near future, eventually expanding online shopping for groceries, with SNAP benefits throughout the country.
A policy analyst with the Heritage Foundation, Rachel Sheffield, said the program could open up more opportunities for fraud. Food stamp recipients may also be encouraged to pay for grocery delivery services, money that could be utilized for other needs. SNAP benefits cannot be utilized to pay for delivery fees.
USDA upheld the decision to allow SNAP recipients to buy groceries online. The agency said that security measures would be put into force to prevent fraud.