Buying food online has become standard, if not the standard quite yet.
FreshDirect, Amazon Prime Now, ShopRite, and many more services provide grocery delivery to those who purchase their food online. Shoppers like these services; online grocery sales are expected to quadruple over the next five years, according to some surveys.
But there’s one important demographic that can benefit from these services and, until now, had no access to them. About 43 million Americans use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, better known as food stamps. The USDA announced this week that SNAP is rolling out a pilot program—first in New York, quickly expanding to other states—allowing SNAP benefits to be used for online groceries.
The first three partners for SNAP online shopping are Walmart, Amazon, and ShopRite. Amazon’s Prime Now grocery delivery has previously been available only to those who subscribe to the $119 per year Amazon Prime subscription, but the company will be waiving that requirement for those using SNAP. The USDA also noted that more companies will be joining shortly—and why wouldn’t they? This is a huge new market to tap.
This addition could be easily written off as a benefit to the huge corporations who can currently handle the low profit margins of grocery delivery, or some kind of technocratic gesture. But it actually could serve a meaningful benefit to those using SNAP. The vast majority of SNAP recipients work—74 percent worked either in the month they used SNAP, or in the year surrounding that month—but usually in low-paying, unstable jobs. These jobs are often demanding in terms of hours, and making a trip to a grocery store can eat up valuable time that people just don’t have.
Another issue is actually being able to get groceries. SNAP recipients are far more likely than non-SNAP recipients to live in a “food desert,” an area without places nearby to get fresh produce. Delivery services, with orders placed online, could be an outsized help in some of these cases—not all, but some.
The downside here is that online delivery is often significantly more expensive than going to a grocery store, and that the SNAP benefits don’t cover service or delivery fees, which are usually around $7 to $10. Ideally those fees would be waived, and even more ideally, food prices would be subsidized, but, you know, nothing’s perfect.