Equitable healthy food access through expansion of the Online SNAP Purchasing Pilot

By Matt Paysour, MPH in Nutrition from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

COVID-19 has dramatically changed how people acquire food.

In the early stages of the pandemic, the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention (CDC) recommended that people alter grocery shopping habits to limit individual exposure to COVID-19. The CDC recommended shopping for two weeks at a time, and even went so far as to suggest that shoppers find ways to pick up or have groceries delivered for high risk individuals.

While Americans historically have been slow to adopt online grocery shopping, surges in online grocery sales suggest that many people have taken this advice to heart. Early in the summer, for instance, online grocery sales accounted for 10-15% of total grocery sales (ordinarily, it’s closer to 3-4%). Coresight Research, a market research firm, found that 60 percent of responding consumers have purchased groceries online in the past 12 months. And we think this trend might stick around. Over one-third of respondents, having discovered the convenience of online grocery shopping, expect to maintain these new habits beyond the pandemic.

However, given this research, we must also ask who, exactly, is grocery shopping online. A report from JP Morgan found that low-income neighborhoods have been slower to adopt online grocery shopping. This is likely in part because online grocery shopping is less accessible for people with limited resources, such as the nearly 36 million Americans receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps.

Prior to 2019, SNAP participants were unable to use benefits to purchase food and groceries online at all. Recognizing the promise of online grocery shopping for equitable healthy food access, Congress allocated funding for a pilot program to explore the feasibility of allowing food retailers to accept SNAP online. In April of 2019, the pilot program was launched in eight states. However, in March of 2020, when the need for ensuring equitable access to safe, socially distant methods of grocery shopping began to emerge, the USDA began accelerating expansion of its SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, and is now operating in a total of 45 states.

All SNAP retailers can apply for participation in the USDA SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot; the problem is that most haven’t. SNAP Online retailer technical requirements require substantial investment in software and cybersecurity. This cost can be prohibitively high, especially when resources such as labor and time are already strained for most retailers trying to adapt to a COVID-19 economy.

As a result, Amazon and Walmart are the only two retailers approved for online SNAP transactions in all participating states, limiting grocery options for SNAP participants wanting or needing to shop online. Regarding accessibility, not all SNAP participants will be within delivery range or driving distance of a Walmart for curbside pickup. For many SNAP participants, this leaves Amazon as their only option for immediate online payment for groceries, which may give Amazon a head start on capturing a large share of online grocery sales. With only two retailers participating nationally in SNAP online purchasing, this creates potential for large retailers to crowd out online competition from retailers that many people may prefer.

If Amazon and Walmart are the primary online grocery retailers, this could threaten the long-term health of SNAP participants. Early evidence from the Center for Digital Democracy suggests that the two online sales giants may already be using online grocery sales to market junk foods to SNAP participants. In short, data collected from consumers while online shopping sorts them into a marketing “segment” composed of people like them in demographic categories such as age and gender, as well as location of residence. Shopping patterns within this “segment” then dictate which foods are marketed, often foods high in sugar, fat, and salt. Increased marketing of unhealthy foods leads to increased purchases of healthy foods. The result? A cycle of unhealthy food purchases and marketing, which can exacerbate poor nutrition-related outcomes for SNAP participants, who are already at higher risk of poorer dietary patterns, obesity, and chronic disease.

A possible solution to disrupt this cycle is increasing access to healthier food retailers for low-resource persons. Prior to the pandemic, local food system approaches were improving access and affordability of healthy foods among low-income consumers. Institutions such as the CDC and USDA recognize investments in local food systems as a “win-win” for both community health and local growers, as strong and accessible local food systems can contribute to positive dietary changes while providing local economic opportunity. For instance, farmers markets or mobile markets where nearby growers can sell direct-to-consumer have been associated with improved dietary patterns among diverse populations, primarily through increased fruit and vegetable consumption. 

Unfortunately, small farms selling into farmers markets and local food systems have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. This is threatening the financial livelihoods of small farms, and ultimately, the future of local food systems as a tool to promote healthy food access.

Efforts to mitigate community transmission of COVID-19, including closures of schools, restaurants, and local markets, have slowed critical revenue streams for small farms. While media reports have often focused on “flourishing” small farms and increased interest in community supported agriculture (CSA) models, evidence in a report from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association shows that this is hardly enough to overcome the lost revenue. A survey of farmers selling into local food markets in North and South Carolina suggest that 83% of small farms and 73% of medium farms are losing weekly revenue due to fewer opportunities to reach restaurants, schools, and consumers. A staggering one-fifth of small farms in this region are reporting losses greater than $1,000 weekly.

This sets up an opportunity. Expansion of the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot to local food retailers can promote safe healthy food access for low-resource households and increase market opportunity for farmers that are hurting financially. Creation of a centralized, easy-to-use platform, as called for in the Expanding SNAP Options Act of 2020, would help many small retailers overcome the high cost of meeting strict technical requirements for participation in the pilot program and expand their customer base. This would also vastly expand consumer choice, and ensure that SNAP participants, many of whom are older adults, immunocompromised, or essential workers with high exposure, can safely engage with local food systems. 

And, most importantly, sustaining the connection between local growers and their communities offers opportunity to erase health disparities burdening low-income groups beyond the pandemic. Incentive programs have in many cases been shown to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP participants in a variety of settings, and may prove valuable in online shopping as well. Online shopping is especially promising, as it may also help overcome barriers to healthy eating that SNAP participants commonly report, such as lack of transportation or limited access to a retailer selling fresh produce

Expansion of the Online SNAP Purchasing Pilot to local food retailers could therefore be an important building block to equity in food access and health outcomes for SNAP participants, now and beyond the pandemic.

Peer-edited by Raj Trikha

Picture credit: Creative Commons

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