USDA Pilots New Digital Benefits Program —
In a unique proxy alliance, three of the nation’s largest retailers are helping to widen grocery accessibility for millions of food insecure families.
Led by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Amazon, ShopRite and Walmart have all signed on to a two-year pilot program that will enable Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to use their EBT benefits online.
Launched last month, the inclusion of digital grocers marks a new first for the SNAP program, a move that could bring much needed relief to many of the nation’s 43.6 million food assistance recipients.
The program, which is currently being piloted in New York State, covers the cost of eligible food items but does not include service charges or delivery fees — still, a small fee to pay for recipients with limited mobility or those without access to a nearby supermarket.
A spokesperson for the USDA revealed that the lessons learned from the two-year pilot are expected to inform future efforts for digital SNAP shoppers and that the department plans to roll the program out to beneficiaries in Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington over the next few years.
“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online. As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients,” U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said in statement.
“We look forward to monitoring how these pilots increase food access and customer service to those we serve, specifically those who may experience challenges in visiting brick-and-mortar stores.”
Although digitizing SNAP benefits will certainly help those living in food deserts and rural areas, questions still remain about how the program will impact minority neighborhoods where family-owned markets and convenience stores rely heavily on purchases made through SNAP.
But despite such concerns, food accessibility is a common trouble among scores of urban and rural dwellers alike as an estimated 23.5 million Americans are currently living in a food desert, an area located more that 10 miles from a supermarket. Of those 23 and-a-half million people, nearly half belong to low-income households.
The program should also provide a boost in visibility for Walmart’s grocery pick-up and delivery services. The big box retailer has made strides in bettering their fulfillment options over the last three years and is holding their own against Amazon as they continue to roll out more hyper-convenient services like drive-up grocery pickup.
“We are excited to be part of the USDA’s pilot program and to be able to make our [Walmart] Grocery Pickup and Delivery service available to more and more people, regardless of their payment method,” Walmart said in a company statement.
“Access to convenience and to quality, fresh groceries shouldn’t be dictated by how you pay. This pilot program is a great step forward, and we are eager to expand this to customers in other states where we already have a great online grocery business.”
By Gabriella Bock | Managing Editor