Smith, 74, is retired and has COPD, a chronic lung disease. He has trouble breathing from his years of smoking cigarettes. In September, he was hospitalized for his condition.
However, Market Basket does not offer customers the option of using their SNAP benefits to order online. (A spokesperson for Market Basket said in an email the company was assessing whether to expand delivery.) In Massachusetts, shoppers can only use their benefits to order online from Amazon and Walmart under a pilot program started in 2019 by the Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP.
That doesn’t work for Smith, who is also a member of Massachusetts Senior Action Council, an advocacy group for low-income seniors. Walmart doesn’t deliver to his home and he says he can’t afford Amazon’s prices on items like milk and fish. Amazon also charges a fee on orders under $35, and the Agriculture Department prohibits
Many SNAP recipients, including older people and people with disabilities, won’t have the ability to participate and shop online because they do not live in states covered by the Agriculture Department’s online program or are in areas outside of retailers’ delivery zones. Advocates say many SNAP participants who are eligible to buy groceries online using their benefits face other challenges, such as internet access, lack of experience using a computer or few places to drop off deliveries.
“It’s one of the biggest failures in the pandemic right now. There’s one system for people who have SNAP and another for people who don’t. It’s really frustrating,” said Lucia Leone, assistant professor in the Department of Community Health and Health Behavior at the University at Buffalo.
The disparities come at a time when concern is growing over rising coronavirus cases, especially in poorer neighborhoods.
Walmart, Kroger, Hy-Vee and other chains also accept payment through SNAP for curbside pickup orders, but that is a challenge for those without a car, people with disabilities, elderly citizens and others who are homebound, say advocates for people on SNAP.
Small grocers face financial and technological hurdles getting approved by the Agriculture Department to accept SNAP benefits online, say advocates. Grocers have to have websites set up where only SNAP-eligible foods are displayed — not household essentials like toilet paper, which are not covered by the program — and a payment processing system that securely accepts SNAP.
“The cost and the technical difficulty of doing it is very challenging,” said Leone from the University at Buffalo. “It’s too much of a burden on small businesses.”
A spokesperson for the Agriculture Department said the agency is “working quickly to provide SNAP participants the opportunity to shop online for food, the same way many Americans do, with a focus on bringing on new and smaller, independent grocery stores” into the program.
Delivery issues and privacy concerns
Even among people on SNAP who live in areas where Amazon or Walmart deliver, there are obstacles to ordering online and receiving deliveries.
Chloe Arnow, co-founder of the Farragut Food Club, a group of residents in a public housing community in Brooklyn, New York, is working to remove hurdles to online grocery shopping for SNAP recipients.
Arnow said common fears include lack of data privacy and theft. Some people worry that their SNAP dollars could be stolen, she said.
Members of the group have been trying to teach residents how to shop online and create email accounts, but there is often limited WiFi in the community and there are few areas to drop off food if someone is not home. “It’s really hard,” she said. “It basically takes a miracle to get the transaction to go through” when working with someone who hasn’t shopped online before.
“The online program is fraught with problems,” said executive director Jeffrey Chester. “The expansion means more data is being gathered and that SNAP participants can be exposed to predatory practices.”
The spokesperson for USDA, however, said the agency has requirements that “protect the private information of SNAP participants” and that it “prohibits retailers from selling or sharing any personal data of SNAP participants.”
The USDA spokesperson did not respond directly to the group’s recommendations for online ordering, but pointed to existing education programs the agency has place that promote healthy eating and a grant program that provides incentives for SNAP participants to purchase fruits and vegetables.