Like just about everything else these days, food stamps are moving online. If you’re one of the 44 million Americans who use food stamps, this could mean big changes for you.
Online grocers like Amazon will soon start accepting food stamps, thanks to a pilot program that the federal government is conducting to test how that will work.
The goal is to give low-earning families more access to healthy food choices — particularly if they don’t have a car or if they live in a “food desert” with limited grocery-shopping options.
When the program launches this summer, families who rely on food stamps will be able to use them online for the first time and have groceries delivered directly to their doorstep.
A Limited Pilot Program
For now, this only applies to residents of Maryland, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania and Washington. If it works out, the practice will spread to more states.
The two-year program will start out with national online grocers like Amazon, FreshDirect and Safeway; regional chains like ShopRite and HyVee; and smaller, New York-only chains like Hart’s Local Grocers and Dash’s Market.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the food stamp program, wants to see whether local or national grocers work best online, the USDA said.
What You Should Know About Food Stamps
Let’s pause for a moment and address a couple burning questions:
- They’re commonly called “food stamps” because the government used to hand out booklets of stamps or coupons worth $1, $5 or $10 apiece. It was that way for decades, and low-income people used those paper stamps to buy food. These days, the stamps have been replaced by debit cards called Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. The USDA renamed the $70-billion-a-year food stamp program SNAP, the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program.
- Let’s face it: There’s a common misconception that people who use food stamps are lazy, and that they’re leeches on society. But in reality, many food stamps go to working people.
- More than half of the working-age, non-disabled adults who get SNAP benefits are employed, and more than 80% of them work in the year before or after getting food stamps, according to the nonpartisan Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. And according to the USDA, nearly half of SNAP recipients are children, 10% are over 60, and more than 40% live in households with earnings.
Some Restrictions Apply
Just like in a regular grocery store, SNAP will restrict what users can purchase online. You can’t buy alcohol or tobacco with food stamps, for instance. You also can’t buy pet food, vitamins or household supplies like soap or paper plates. (Food stamps are for buying food.)
Before using their digital food stamps to buy groceries online, SNAP recipients will have a few things to consider. Mainly, they’ll have to pay for any online service or delivery fees, because their SNAP benefits won’t cover those.
Services like AmazonFresh cost nearly $15 per month. Meanwhile, SNAP recipients get an average of $125 per person in benefits per month.
Still, moving food stamps into the point-and-click era could be useful for people who live in food deserts or for the elderly and disabled who have trouble leaving their homes.
“Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack.
Your Turn: Have you ever used food stamps? What was it like?
Mike Brassfield (@MikeBrassfield) is a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. When he’s not working, he’s being a dad.