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Here's why an organic grocer wants people to be able to use food stamps online

Jun 30, 2016

Almost 25 million people in the U.S. live in food deserts. These are neighborhoods with limited access to fresh, healthy, and affordable food sources. Nearly half of these residents are low-income.

And about 2.1 million households don't own a vehicle and live more than one mile from the nearest supermarket.

A lack of grocery stores, farmers' markets, and healthy food providers leaves them with few options, like fast food restaurants and processed "junk" food from corner stores and gas stations.

But an online organic grocery startup wants to change that by bringing food to their doors. It's called Thrive Market, and it's like an online-only cross between Whole Foods and Costco. The company is in the process of petitioning the U.S. Department of Agriculture to allow low-income customers to be able to shop for groceries online with food stamps.

Thrive was founded three years ago. The way it works is customers pay $60 a year to be able to buy organic food at what the company says are lower prices than traditional grocers. And for every membership it sells, it gives another to a low-income family for free.

What Thrive is asking of the agriculture department is not a new idea.

The USDA launched a pilot program in 2012 that allowed some food delivery services, including FreshDirect in Brooklyn, to accept orders online and receive EBT payment at the time of delivery. But it required SNAP recipients to be available at the time of delivery, which isn’t always possible.

And earlier this year the USDA began looking for grocery purchasing and delivery companies to become SNAP authorized retailers for one year, but this service would only be available to homebound disabled or elderly food stamp recipients.

According to The New York Times, Thrive Market's founders have been in talks with the agriculture department for almost two years on the issue of allowing customers to use SNAP benefits. Now they are circulating an online petition, which as of today has just over 10,500 supporters toward their goal of 100,000. Co-founder Gunnar Lovelace told the Times:

They jerked us around. We know they’re going to do this eventually, but we want to show the support there is for making this happen and happen quickly.

Nearly 45 million - or about 1 in 7 - people are on food stamps. Giving them access to healthy food can lead to better eating habits, which decreases risk for obesity and diet-related diseases. Lovelace said in an interview with Forbes:

Increasing access to healthy food is an essential step in working to curb the onset of lifestyle diseases that are shouldering our medical system with unsustainable costs. Plus the intangible personal and societal costs of these largely preventable diseases.

According to Mashable, Thrive Market will take its food stamps campaign to Washington next month, holding its first congressional briefing with Rep. Tim Ryan, a Democrat from Ohio.