Part of the Food Policy Snapshot Series
Policy name: SNAP Online Purchasing
Location: Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Missouri, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Texas, Washington State, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia
Population: Based on the figures below from 2019, there were a total of 19.2 million SNAP participants. However, current numbers may be much higher as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alabama – 727,000
Arizona – 797,000
California – 3,789,000
Florida – 2,847,000
Idaho – 146,000
Iowa – 320,000
Kentucky – 541,000
Missouri – 692,000
Nebraska – 161,000
New York – 2,661,000
North Carolina – 1,298,000
Oregon – 599,000
Texas – 3,406,000
Washington State – 825,000
West Virginia – 305,000
District of Columbia – 94,000
Food policy category: Food access
Program goals: To give SNAP participants greater access to food by allowing online purchases.
How it works: The 2014 Farm Bill gave the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) authorization to complete a pilot program for online SNAP purchases before expanding to national implementation. The pilot will test the safety, security, and efficiency of processing SNAP orders online.
Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards may be used to place grocery orders online in approved states through participating online retailers including Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite. SNAP benefits may not be used to cover service or delivery fees.
Retailers must meet specific requirements to be approved to serve SNAP participants online. Additional interested states must work with the USDA to conduct preliminary testing prior to launching the pilot program in those states, in order to ensure that the state’s benefit system is not compromised.
Progress to date: Since its launch in April 2019, the program has expanded to 15 states and the District of Columbia. Kentucky, Missouri, and Texas were the most recent states to be added to the program on April 21, 2020.
Why it is important: As of January 2020, there were more than 37 million Americans in 19 million households receiving SNAP benefits. Prior to the online purchasing pilot program, SNAP benefits could only be used in person, at brick-and-mortar stores or farmer’s markets.
One criterion for receiving SNAP benefits is having an income at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty line, and approximately 34 percent of recipients do not own a car. They borrow cars from neighbors or friends, walk, bike, or use public transportation to complete their grocery shopping. Therefore, the ability to buy food online and have it delivered to one’s residence significantly facilitates the process of food shopping, particularly for those with physical disabilities or limited access to grocery stores.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become vitally important to limit social interactions in public. Lower-income communities have had a noticeably higher rate of infection than wealthier areas, due at least in part to a lack of health insurance, an inability to work from home, limited medical resources, and overcrowding. Moreover, low-income families may not have the luxury of stockpiling food and supplies to avoid frequent public interactions. Now more than ever it is important that SNAP participants have the ability to buy their groceries online and receive their food without having to leave their homes.
Program/Policy initiated: The pilot program began with New York State on April 18, 2019.
Point of contact: N/A
Similar practices: The USDA recommends that people in other states waiting to be approved for the pilot program utilize other options, such as Click and Collect or Pay at Pick-up, through which SNAP participants can shop online and use their EBT cards to pay at pick-up. Walmart and Kroger are among the retailers offering this service, and the entire state of Ohio just made this option available to SNAP recipients.
Evaluation: Evaluation of the pilot program has not yet been completed. The pilot will be ongoing through the spring of 2021.