Alabama, Iowa, and Oregon join New York in providing delivery options as more shoppers rely on government assistance.

By Jelisa Castrodale
April 01, 2020
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Last April, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) launched a two-year pilot program that was designed to allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to use their benefits to shop for eligible groceries online at Amazon, Walmart, and some participating local supermarket chains.

"People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food—by ordering and paying for groceries online," Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue said at the time. "As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients."

Credit: Smith Collection/Gado / Contributor/Getty Images

At the time of its launch, those online shopping options were only available within the New York City area, and in a few participating locations in upstate New York. Seven other states were also named as future participants in the pilot program, including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington.

Seattle-area SNAP recipients became eligible to shop online for groceries at Amazon and Walmart in January, while officials in Alabama, Iowa, and Oregon decided to speed up their states' enrollment in the program in order to help keep residents safe from the spread of coronavirus.

The Oregon Department of Human Services (DHS) said that pandemic-related layoffs had caused the state's weekly number of applications for food stamps to quadruple, jumping from 1,000 applications each week to between three and four thousand. The department estimated that 20 percent of the state's residents could be relying on SNAP benefits to help them purchase food.

"This is totally unprecedented for us," Dan Haun, the DHS Self-Sufficiency Programs Director told KPTV. "Even during the recession it was a steadier increase—this has been literally what we’ve seen over months, we’ve seen over days."

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On Monday, Amazon tweeted that the SNAP Online Pilot program had been expanded to include Alabama, while the Iowa DHS said that part of its "comprehensive approach to address food insecurity" includes allowing SNAP recipients to use Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards to purchase food online through Amazon and at participating Walmart locations.

Other states are reportedly considering similar online shopping allowances, even if they're only temporary to help residents comply with social distancing requirements or stay at home orders. The San Francisco Chronicle reports that California officials have contacted the federal government for permission to let CalFresh recipients—the state's version of food stamps—use their benefits for online shopping or grocery delivery. If its request is approved by the USDA, CalFresh participants could have access to online ordering two to three weeks later.

Sen. Bob Casey has contacted the USDA, as well as grocery and supermarket trade associations, about allowing Pennsylvania SNAP recipients to shop online too. "As USDA works to address the effects of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) across the country and the significant threat to food security, I urge you to ensure that groceries can be delivered to SNAP participants who cannot safely leave their home to travel to a store," he wrote in a letter to the USDA.

"This is especially important for seniors, immunocompromised individuals, families who lack reliable transportation and individuals with disabilities. These individuals should not be disadvantaged simply because they rely on SNAP benefits for access to healthy food. I have heard from constituents unable to access grocery delivery using their SNAP benefits and urge USDA to immediately work with retailers and partners to address this gap."

As of this writing, Amazon allows SNAP recipients in participating states to shop through all three of its grocery options, including Amazon's main site, Prime Pantry, and Amazon Fresh, although the program's benefits cannot be used to cover any service or delivery costs.