There are over 44 million Americans currently receiving SNAP benefits, better known as food stamps. This financial assistance was designed to provide nutritious food to qualifying citizens, and about 54% of beneficiaries are children and the elderly.
However, there are a number of struggles that SNAP recipients can face as far as actually spending these funds. The elderly and those without reliable transportation can have trouble getting to the grocery store. Even worse, some areas of the country are considered “food deserts,” and residents there are forced to choose from limited options at small convenience stores or sometimes travel hours just to reach a true grocery store. So, even though those in poverty are having a portion of their food costs subsidized, they can’t actually get their groceries without an inordinate amount of effort.
Last month, it was announced that web giant Amazon — along with six other online grocery retailers — will begin accepting food stamps this coming summer. This is part of a USDA pilot program, aimed at making food more accessible and more affordable for those receiving benefits.
Of the online food providers included in the program, Amazon is by and large the biggest. The retail giant offers dry and fresh goods through its Amazon Pantry, Amazon Prime Now, and Amazon Fresh options.
The other retailers include Safeway, Hy-Vee, Hart’s Local Grocers, ShopRite, and Dash’s Market. Between these, recipients from seven states will benefit from the program: Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Washington, Iowa, and Oregon.
Though actual food “stamps” are now obsolete and benefits are distributed onto debit-esque cards, it is the first time that SNAP benefits have ever been accepted online. Of course, this opens the door even wider to the possibility of stamp fraud, or even simply questionable use. In fact, the USDA found that over $1.3 billion was spent on junk food in 2011… these purchases include soda/sweetened drinks (these alone accounted for $600 million, in fact), desserts, candy, sugar, and salty snacks. Of course, this is not the purpose of the government-funded program, and calls into question its efficacy.
This also raises the concern of conflicts of interest, by allowing large corporations to profit from poverty and the state programs that support it. For example, J.P. Morgan provides EBT (electronic benefits transaction) services for 24 different states and their food stamp programs. Since 2004, 18 of these states have contracted the bank’s services, for a total bill of over $560 million. This provides quite an incentive for these banks and other companies to participate in such government programs.
Rolling Out Soon
The trial program will begin in July and initially run for a two-year period. SNAP recipients in the seven states mentioned above (Maryland, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Iowa, and Oregon) can take advantage of online ordering, through Amazon or the other providers. There are plans to expand the program further down the line, potentially adding retailers like Walmart to the list.
It will be interesting to see how well the program runs, and its ability to bring fresh, healthy foods to those who cannot easily access them otherwise. I am also curious to see whether or not the benefits are abused more than they are at-present. However, I am optimistic that the use of an online purchasing system will allow for increased monitoring and will prevent some of the current fraud issues. I hope to see those in food deserts, or without transportation , improve their ability to source nutritional options.
What do you think about being able to use food stamps online?
Updated February 15, 2017 and originally published February 10, 2017.