Amazon and other online grocery retailers will soon start allowing customers to pay with food stamps in a two-year pilot program set to begin this summer, Forbes is reporting.
Beginning this summer (the actual start date for the program hasn’t yet been released, as of this writing), food stamp users in seven states — Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Iowa, and Oregon — will be able to spend their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits online.
Besides Amazon, another major online grocer — FreshDirect — will accept food stamps as part of the pilot program. Traditional brick-and-mortar groceries that have online delivery options will participate as well. Those include Safeway, ShopRite, Hy-Vee, Hart’s Local Grocers, and Dash’s Market.
In a statement, United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) secretary Tom Vilsack said that if the two-year pilot program is a success, it will expand to all 50 states, and to other grocers willing to participate.
“Amazon is excited to participate in the USDA SNAP online purchasing pilot. We are committed to making food accessible through online grocery shopping, offering all customers the lowest prices possible.”
The program is not without its limitations, however. For one thing, users will still be on the hook for delivery and processing charges, and those can’t be covered by SNAP benefits. Those delivery charges can get pricey: AmazonFresh, for example, costs $14.99 per month, and that’s only if you’re already an Amazon Prime member ($99 per year, or $10 per month). Delivery charges at brick-and-mortar grocers vary.
By allowing SNAP users to use their food stamp benefits online, the USDA (which manages the food stamp program at the federal level) hopes to address a couple of shortcomings with the program, says Vilsack.
“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. We’re looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.”
Specifically, allowing food stamp users to shop online may help elderly and disabled individuals who may have difficulty getting to the grocery store.
Beyond that, however, allowing food stamp users to shop for their groceries online addresses a growing problem in some urban and rural areas. “Food deserts,” as they’re called by social scientists and nutritionists, are areas where residents lack convenient access to fresh, healthy food. In rural areas, for example, people may live miles away from a grocery store with a wide selection of fresh, healthy ingredients. And in urban areas, residents may have to rely on cheap, processed foods from corner markets rather than grocery stores. Further, the proliferation of unhealthy fast-food restaurants in “food deserts” contributes to the problem.
In Baltimore, for example, one in four residents in the city proper live in an area identified as a “food desert,” according to the Baltimore Sun. Talib Horne, whose organization, Bon Secours Community Works, started an urban farm to help address the problem in some Baltimore neighborhoods, says the expanded food stamp plan seems to have merit.
“I think this is a step in the right direction. There’s an immediate need for grocery stores and realistically that might take a longer time to accomplish. I think in the meantime this is a good option.”
Others in Baltimore aren’t so sure. Cailey Locklair Tolle, the president of the Maryland Retailers Association, says she’s already getting calls from retailers concerned about the expanded food stamp program leaving urban, brick-and-mortar, mom-and-pop operations that have been there for generations high and dry.
“Any time you tinker with any part of the revenue for a grocery store, you can literally send them in the red very quickly.”
Do you think SNAP users should be allowed to spend food stamps at Amazon and other online grocers?
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