Starting next summer, Illinois residents on food stamps may be able to buy their groceries online through a two-year federal pilot program intended to increase food access for the poor.
Times, they are a’changin’, though faster for some than others. Online shopping has dramatically altered buying habits for most Americans in recent years, and now, the $75 billion federal food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is moving toward making that option available to the 43 million or so people across the country receiving benefits.
The test run, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, is intended to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture work out the kinks before making online purchasing a permanent option. To help accomplish this complex goal, USDA officials are expected to announce Thursday a request for online grocery retailers to participate in the program. Up to five retailers in as many as three states will be chosen; the program is expected to begin next summer.
“We will learn what some of the challenges are and how the program works online. … I would expect it to enhance the program for people with limited mobility, those with disabilities or people who have to be careful about moving out of their house for whatever reason,” said USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon in a recent interview.
In Illinois, about 1.9 million people receive assistance through SNAP, up from about 1.2 million people some 10 years ago. The vast majority of SNAP benefits — 82 percent — are redeemed at supermarkets and merchants like Costco, though in so-called food deserts, such as some low-income African-American neighborhoods on Chicago’s South and West sides, immediate access to healthy food is often limited to what’s available at corner stores.
Concannon said he expected the online sales to be a “step in the right direction” for people living in food deserts. At the same time, the USDA is in the process of increasing the stock of healthy food offerings at all authorized SNAP retailers.
Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher of food equity issues often credited with popularizing the term “food desert” in a 2006 study, called the SNAP pilot program overdue but applauded the USDA for pushing forward with it.
Online grocery shopping has become increasingly popular in recent years, a trend that’s so far excluded SNAP recipients, Gallagher said.
“Many families of all economic levels are busy and don’t have time to shop. This helps bring SNAP recipients more into the mainstream. … We’re very excited about it,” said Gallagher, whose Chicago-based firm works with municipalities, corporations and health care institutions across the country.
In a 2012 study, Gallagher found that 85 of the 87 authorized SNAP retailers in the Roseland and Pullman community areas were what she calls “fringe,” meaning a person couldn’t sustain a healthy diet by shopping there consistently. Online shopping for SNAP recipients could provide more healthy food options while challenging some of the incumbent retailers to do better.
“The program isn’t designed as an entitlement program for any certain kind of retailer. I’m of the mindset that some will survive and some won’t,” Gallagher said.
The vast majority of SNAP users likely won’t buy their groceries online because extra costs, such as delivery charges, won’t be covered by the benefits, said Craig Gundersen, professor of agricultural and consumer economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
But Gundersen said the pilot program was a “fantastic idea” that will be of great benefit to the elderly and those with disabilities.
“There are a lot of seniors who for medical and other reasons have difficulty getting to food stores. This can almost be like a meals-on-wheels program for them,” Gundersen said.
Momentum has been building for the pilot program’s launch. Earlier this week, Democrat Sens. Cory Booker, Barbara Lee and Tim Ryan wrote a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack requesting “an accelerated timeline” for the program. A petition launched by Thrive Market, a California-based online grocery retailer, urging the use of online food stamps has garnered more than 310,000 signatures.
But making such a change doesn’t come easy. There are concerns about ensuring the privacy of SNAP recipients and preventing fraud, which will have to be addressed with the chosen retailers, Concannon said. Illinois residents using the Link card, the modern-day version of food stamps, would be required to enter a personal identification number, or PIN, as they do when buying food in stores.
Currently, Xerox is the only processor of electronic benefit transfers for SNAP that’s agreed to make the necessary system adjustments to accommodate online payments, though more are expected to follow. Therefore, the pilot program will be available only in the 20 states served by Xerox, which include Illinois.
Eventually, as the systems are worked out, the program’s expected to be available nationwide.
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