Making healthier food choices is a little easier for some than others — and we're not talking about willpower. Access to healthier food choices is not necessarily forthcoming for people with low incomes who struggle to make ends meet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) wants to change things for the better. As such, it is seeking retailer volunteers for a two-year, nationwide pilot to enable Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants to purchase their groceries online.
The 2014 Farm Bill mandated a pilot be conducted to test the possibility of allowing retail food stores to accept SNAP benefits through online transactions. Up to five retailers in three states will be selected for this pilot and — once selected — the pilot is slated to begin next summer after the EBT processor completes system development work to allow for online transactions.
"Online purchasing shows great promise to improve access to healthy food for SNAP participants living in neighborhoods and rural or tribal areas without grocery stores," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Online purchasing will also help those who are unable to access a grocery store due to a disability or lack of transportation."
Since the passage of the Farm Bill, USDA has been working to lay the groundwork to put together the complex technical infrastructure required for this pilot. Online payment presents technical and security issues that will be tested in this controlled, limited way prior to nationwide expansion. USDA is committed to maintaining the security of SNAP benefits for both the protection of SNAP participant accounts and to prevent and detect trafficking, so SNAP online purchases must have a higher level of security than most other online purchases.
"Ensuring the security of SNAP's taxpayer-funded benefits is paramount as we look toward expanding access through the online marketplace. We will continue to work closely with our state and EBT processing partners on this pilot so that we can bring this option to SNAP households in an efficient and secure manner," Vilsack said.
For households to make online purchases, the pilot requires retailer volunteers to provide service that is secure, private, and easy to use. As with all SNAP purchases, customers participating in the online pilot will only be able to use their SNAP benefits for eligible food purchases — not to cover any related charges, such as delivery or service fees. Retailers interested in participating should consult the online purchasing pilot Request for Volunteers Application Package available for download from the FNS public website.
USDA has taken many steps in the last several years to strengthen SNAP and increase access to healthy foods. Recently FNS announced a purchase and delivery pilot, which is designed for nonprofits and government entities to improve access to groceries solely for homebound elderly and disabled SNAP participants. USDA also provided funding to incentivize participants in SNAP to purchase more healthy fruits and vegetables through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, increased farmers market participation in SNAP to improve access to fresh and nutritious food, and proposed updated SNAP retailer standards to include different varieties of healthy qualifying foods.
As the nation's first line of defense against hunger, SNAP helps put food on the table for millions of low-income families and individuals every month and is critical in the fight against hunger. SNAP is a vital supplement to the monthly food budgets of 44 million low-income individuals. SNAP plays an important role in reducing both poverty and food insecurity in the United States — especially among children. SNAP is an effective and efficient health intervention for low-income families with a positive impact on children beginning before birth and lasting beyond childhood years, improving health, education and economic outcomes.
USDA's Food and Nutrition Service administers 15 nutrition assistance programs. In addition to SNAP, these programs include the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, the National School Lunch Program and the Summer Food Service Program.