Seven food retailers have been selected to participate in the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) pilot project to enable consumers in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to buy groceries online. The two-year, seven-state pilot is scheduled to launch this summer.
Those chosen include Amazon in Maryland, New Jersey and New York; FreshDirect in New York; Safeway in Maryland, Oregon and Washington; ShopRite in Maryland, New Jersey and Pennsylvania; Hy-Vee in Iowa; Rochester-based Hart’s Local Grocers in New York; and Buffalo-based Dash’s Market in New York.
The companies selected represent a range of store types, including national online retailers, large grocery chains, and smaller, regional networks, in both rural and urban areas, to appropriately test online SNAP purchasing in various settings.
“Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack. “We’re looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.”
“The SNAP Online Purchasing pilot is at the intersection of innovation and community improvement,” said Shane Sampson, chief marketing and merchandising officer for Boise, Idaho-based Albertsons Cos., whose shop.safeway.com site will test and implement the program beginning in August 2017. “Enabling SNAP participants to shop online and have their groceries delivered makes fresh foods more accessible to everyone, including those who may not be able to make a weekly trip to the store.” A combined 327 Safeway stores in the company’s Seattle, Portland and Eastern divisions will be involved in the pilot.
Although USDA already allows SNAP online grocery ordering in some locations, the upcoming pilot will test both online ordering and payment. “Online payment presents technical and security challenges that will need to be examined and fully addressed before it is offered nationwide,” the department explained. “As with the core program, SNAP participants will only be able to use their benefits to purchase eligible items online – not to pay for service or delivery charges. USDA is committed to maintaining the security of SNAP benefits for both the protection of SNAP participant accounts and to prevent and detect trafficking, so SNAP online purchases must have a higher level of security than most other online purchases.”
USDA anticipates that, as the pilot progresses according to requirements, it will add more retailers, noting, “Eventually, our goal is for this to be a national option for SNAP participants.”
Recent steps taken to bolster SNAP and increase access to healthy foods include a purchase and delivery pilot designed to aid homebound elderly and disabled program participants; funding to encourage participants to purchase more fruits and vegetables through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, boosting farmers’ market participation in the program, and issuing a final rule authorizing retail establishments to offer a larger inventory and variety of healthy food options.
So far, grocery industry reaction to the pilot appears to be mixed. “With supermarkets disappearing from neighborhoods in all five boroughs, this pilot program will only accelerate the trend,” asserted New York Association of Grocery Stores spokesman Brad Gerstman. “It will also greatly disadvantage seniors in particular that have less access and skills to use the internet. In general, access to fresh fruits and vegetables will be restricted by this ill-conceived idea.”
Unsurprisingly, Long Island City, N.Y.-based FreshDirect, one of the pilot participants, was enthusiastic about the test, observing, “We believe that fresh, high-quality and healthful food options should be accessible to all.”
Likewise, Nick Nickitas, CEO of Ithaca, N.Y.-based Rosie, the online shopping platform that supports Dash's Market's e-commerce program, noted, “Our participation in this pilot ensures that retailers that select Rosie as their e-commerce partner can provide access to all people at all times to enough food for an active, healthy life.”
SNAP supplements the monthly food budget of more than 43 million low-income individuals. Nearly half of SNAP participants are children, 10 percent are over 60, and more than 40 percent of recipients live in households with earnings.