Many Americans still refer the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP as “food stamps,” but the program that helps millions of American supplement their food budget hasn’t resembled “stamps” in a long time. Starting in the ‘90s, actual stamps began to be replaced by what looks like a debit card, and in 2008, all use of the word “stamp” was officially removed from the program. And now, the USDA, which runs the program, has announced that SNAP is taking another step into the future, testing a program that will allow people to use SNAP benefits online.
Though opponents and those suspicious of the program will likely have the kneejerk reaction that allowing SNAP participants to shop online allows the lazy to be lazier…or something… as The Washington Post points out, the program, which is being tested in seven states with seven retailers including big names like Amazon and FreshDirect, has all kinds of upsides. First, as Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack stated, “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.” But forget about healthy food: Some people lack easy access to food in general if the nearest grocery store is miles away. Interestingly, the Post cites a stat that, among the poor, more people have internet access than a car, meaning ordering groceries online can help them avoid a long walk or an inconvenient public transport commute. And for the record, yes, online SNAP shoppers have to pay the delivery fee out of pocket, but they’d also have to pay out of pocket for a monthly car payment and insurance or a transportation fare.
The USDA addressed another big SNAP criticism as well: misuse. The agency says that, just like at a store, only purchases of eligible items will be accepted. Additionally, the USDA writes, “SNAP online purchases must have a higher level of security than most other online purchases.” This issue specifically will be assessed during the trial before the program is rolled out nationwide.
In the end, though, online shopping could potentially make life easier for as many as 43 million people on SNAP. And importantly, as the USDA points out, “Nearly half of SNAP participants are children [and] 10 percent are over 60.” If online ordering helps these vulnerable groups food, that seems like an improvement to me.