Imagine a single mother working multiple part time jobs, a grandparent living near a city and driving for a ridesharing company, or a widower picking up work on a farm or as a handyman. All of these people are working to support themselves or their family, but many still may be in need of assistance.  Even in a period of serious economic growth in our country, many people still face hard circumstances. While the number of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program participants has gone down significantly, it is still utilized by roughly 40 million Americans, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is working to ensure that SNAP is able to work better for those who qualify for it.   

USDA announced last month New York State would be the first in the nation to pilot online ordering and delivery of foods for customers using SNAP benefits.  USDA Secretary Perdue said this about the pilot, “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. As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too…” This option may provide healthier, more convenient options to those living in food deserts or balancing jobs, children and public transportation, or the lack of it.  

As Secretary Perdue noted, purchasing patterns by Americans have shifted. Any visit to popular grocery chains over the last few years illustrate the order-online-and-pickup model has served customers well by saving them time and money and streamlining travel. The Online SNAP Pilot was signed into law as part of the 2014 Farm Bill when I was Staff Director of the Senate Agriculture Committee Minority staff, but unfortunately it has taken years to get the pilot launched.  

Political appointees in both the Obama and Trump Administrations understood the promise of allowing SNAP participants to utilize SNAP online, but they also wanted to ensure that important fraud prevention measures were addressed in the build out of the pilot. Fraud prevention in the pilot will require online customers to use the PIN they use in stores. This is in addition to the required sign-in of most online platforms, which allows another layer of protection to determine identity. In the order/pickup/pay model customers will still have to show their SNAP card to the checker. To be clear, SNAP benefits will only go to the cost of food, and cannot be spent on the cost of delivery.  

There is no one SNAP customer, and this is seen clearly in my home state of Mississippi where vast stretches of the state are rural and access to grocery stores is often limited. Feeding America, the network of 200 food banks across the country, in their Map the Meal Gap study for 2019, utilize USDA’s Economic Research Service data to show that counties with 20 percent of population living in poverty over 30 years is considered a county with persistent poverty.  Currently there are 353 of these persistent poverty counties, and maybe surprisingly 85 percent of those counties are rural. Also according to Feeding America, “Limited access to jobs, transportation, and education make it tough to earn a living in remote areas.”

In the New York pilot that just launched, Walmart and Amazon launched in both rural areas of upstate New York as well as New York City, and they have already been joined by ShopRite on Staten Island. Other pilot states will eventually include Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, and there are all types and sizes of retail stores participating in the pilot, including local and regional stores.  

It’s important that USDA get this right, both for program integrity and the consumer. States with rural working populations could save time and money and have better access to food due to a lack of availability of brick and mortar stores. The significant amount of data provided by the pilot will be key in determining if it should be expanded beyond the current states. However, if USDA is able to ensure safe, nutritious food is available and can be ordered online in a secure way that protects against fraud, I hope Secretary Perdue will give serious consideration to broadening the pilot beyond the current states.  

T.A. Hawks is a partner at Monument Advocacy Group. Hawks previously served as staff director of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry under then Ranking Member, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., where he led Senate Republican efforts on the 2014 Farm Bill. Hawks served on Capitol Hill for nearly 15 years as a senior policy and political advisor, including service as a Senate chief of staff and legislative director.

(Monument Advocacy represents Amazon and worked with them throughout the SNAP pilot selection and launch and also represent Feeding America)