Food stamps will soon be used to buy groceries online
Thursday, January 12, 2017
Online grocery is a fast-growing segment, but there are still miles to go before we can say it has truly arrived. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) seems to think so, too. In an attempt to help more people get access to all kinds of food options, the USDA has just announced food stamp participants will soon be able to enjoy online grocery shopping.
This two-year pilot program will begin this summer with retailers in seven states, in both urban and rural areas. Brands like Amazon have changed the way we shop and, more recently, opened up new options for grocery shopping as well. It will now partner with the USDA in Maryland, New Jersey, and New York to allow food stamp recipients purchase their groceries online.
The other retailers who will participate in this pilot program are FreshDirect in New York; ShopRite in Maryland, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania; Safeway in Maryland, Oregon and Washington; and Hart's Local Grocers and Dash's Market in New York. The mission is to make food accessible to all and at the lowest prices possible.
This will be a big boost for the federal government's 44 million Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants. This low-income food assistance program has been a lifeline for many, and with online grocery options in the mix, it will be a boon for those who do not have easy access to food.
Amazon is particularly gung-ho about the program and hopes to see rapid and positive benefits of their efforts, though not much is known about how SNAP and Amazon Prime will work together. Presently, one has to be an Amazon Prime member to enjoy Amazon's grocery delivery service AmazonFresh. Food stamp recipients are not allowed to use their benefits for delivery and service charges, and if additional membership fees are attached, this program may end even before it has begun.
Nevertheless, online grocery shopping is the reality of the future. This program may just be the catalyst to get more people join in — even those who have a limited idea about it. The program is in its initial phase and will obviously go through changes as usage, better options and benefits surface.
Features like online ordering with in-person payment vs. online payment and delivery will be split-tested to see which works better. While customers will be eligible for certain items and services via food stamps, as mentioned earlier, it needs to be seen whether they get value for their money.
Also, for vendors like FreshDirect, the reach will be limited. They will be available in two zip codes in the Bronx. While most are operating on the East Coast, Safeway will be the only retailer to accept online food stamps for grocery purchases on the West Coast.
Also, the online ordering and payment options will go through the usual trial-and-error phase, posing technical and security challenges that will have to be handled and fixed. The pilot may be a good place to check all these errors and iron out issues before the national rollout occurs.
At this point, the USDA is trying to determine the best possible way to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans. Along with adding to the online retailers and more nationwide participants, officials are also trying to gauge whether the inclusion of local grocers would help.
It is true that fresh, high-quality and healthy food options are not available to all Americans. For SNAP participants, this may be a life-altering experience, an option that may impact larger communities positively as well.
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