The EBT cards that low-income people use to buy food with their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits could become a thing of the past, replaced by smartphones. 

That’s the goal of a provision in the House farm bill that would authorize up to five demonstration projects using mobile technologies in place of EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) cards to deliver SNAP benefits. The bill would require USDA to make the smartphone technology available unless the demonstration projects show that the technology is not ready for implementation or is not in the best interest of the program. 

“We think the time to talk about modernization and innovation about EBT benefits is now,” said David Mounts, CEO of Inmar Inc., a company based in Winston-Salem, N.C., that offers the smartphone technology. 

SNAP recipients who don’t have smartphones could continue to use their EBT cards but they could benefit in several ways from switching, he said. SNAP benefits also could be combined with those issued through the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) nutrition program to simplify the administration of the programs. 

For one thing, retailers and manufacturers could provide digital coupons, including matching funds for fruit and vegetable purchases, via smartphones targeted to the recipients’ food needs. That would make their benefits go further, he said. 

Other advantages to the technology, according to Mounts: Using a smartphone at the supermarket checkout is more dignified than pulling out an EBT card, and smartphones could be used to deliver nutrition advice and recipes to SNAP recipients.

Retailers and taxpayers would benefit, too. For retailers, the technology can speed up checkout lanes and simplify the process of tracking what items are eligible for purchase; Inmar maintains and updates a database of product codes.

For the government, the technology could reduce administrative costs and also allow officials to better track spending patterns to see, for example, whether consumption of fruits and vegetables went up or down in the previous year.

“The new technology really allows everyone to have unlimited access to better services, information and opportunity,” Mounts said. 

This isn't the first attempt to help SNAP recipients use their smartphones to manage their benefits. The New York Times recently reported on a startup called Propel, which developed an app called FreshEBT that allows SNAP users to look up how much money is left on their EBT cards as well as link to food coupons and job openings. Another company, Conduent, which runs the SNAP networks in many states, is starting a rival app, the Times said.

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