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Amazon is among online retailers to begin accepting food stamps

Jan 17, 2017

More than 43 million Americans receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - formerly known as food stamps. 

And many of these low-income families live in so-called "food deserts." These are neighborhoods with limited access to fresh, healthy and affordable food sources.

But the U.S. Department of Agriculture hopes to expand access to healthy food by allowing SNAP recipients to order and pay for eligible items online and have them shipped to their door.

The two-year pilot program is slated to start this summer and will include seven retailers spanning seven states, including:

The program is a provision of the 2014 Farm Bill, which requires a pilot be conducted to test the possibility of allowing retail food stores to accept SNAP benefits through online transactions. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a press release:

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. We're looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.

While the program has the potential to make it easier for low-income families to have access to healthier, higher-quality food, it may also face some challenges. Things like the costs and logistical complications associated with delivery, the demographic overlap between SNAP recipients and Americans without internet access and opposition from brick-and-mortar stores could overshadow convenience, according to Adam Chandler at The Atlantic.

And my colleague Dustin Dwyer previously explored an economic study that found even when fresh, healthy foods are available, people of lower socioeconomic status are less likely to choose those options. Dwyer wrote:

If solving the food desert problem won't do much to help people eat healthier, what will? This paper doesn't offer an answer to that question. But its authors do note that they hope to take up the question of food affordability in their future research. It may be that, even when healthy options are available, low-income or less-educated consumers don't choose that food simply because that food is more expensive.  If that turns out to be the case, it suggests food policy should be directed more at making healthy food affordable. At any rate, just making that food available doesn't seem to be enough.

A lack of grocery stores, farmers' markets, and healthy food providers leaves residents with few options, like fast food restaurants and processed "junk" food from corner stores and gas stations. And living in a food desert contributes to adult obesity and diabetes, and obesity among low-income preschoolers, according to PBS.

While the success of the program is uncertain, if the pilot succeeds, it could expand nationally. According to the USDA:

As the pilot proceeds and USDA confirms the system is operating as required, we anticipate being able to add additional retailers. Eventually, our goal is for this to be a national option for SNAP participants, once the pilot phase is complete and USDA can incorporate lessons learned into program rules.