Since the outbreak of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) began, customers across the country have been utilizing the convenience of online shopping for more than just clothes and shoes. Online shopping has become one of the most popular ways to obtain food and household essentials as it allows customers to adhere to social distancing guidelines and stay-at-home orders while not having to alter their diets.
Online shopping has become one of the most popular ways to obtain food and household essentials.
Delivery platforms like Instacart and Shipt allow customers to shop at certain retailers online, have a “personal shopper” physically purchase the items and then deliver them straight to the customer’s home. Large grocery chains like Kroger and Giant Eagle have used a similar method for years where customers choose time slots and store employees shop for items and either deliver them curbside to their vehicle or to a front doorstep using a delivery service partner such as Uber or GrubHub.
Considering COVID-19 is so easily transmittable, grocery delivery can be an essential service during this time for those who are immunocompromised, elderly, sick or self-isolating due to contact with a sick person. These groups in particular should avoid leaving their homes, even for medicine or food. For many Ohioans, however, grocery shopping alternatives such as curbside pick-up and grocery delivery may be out of reach if they purchase groceries with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits. In fiscal year 2018, 698,000 Ohio households received SNAP benefits, 26 percent of whom were elderly individuals (age 60+) and 25.3 percent were non-elderly individuals with disabilities. These two vulnerable populations combined make up 51 percent of all Ohio SNAP recipients.
Grocery shopping alternatives such as curbside pick-up and grocery delivery may be out of reach if they purchase groceries with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits.
The Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) should be applauded for their efforts to secure additional assistance and administrative relief for Ohioans who are struggling during this time. Efforts like the issuance of emergency SNAP payments, the suspension of work and training requirements, and simplification of the application process have helped to assure food insecurity isn’t a concern Ohio families face during the pandemic. It was also helpful to see Governor Mike DeWine elevate the “Click and Collect” announcement that the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) allows retailers to offer SNAP curbside delivery. But to ensure that SNAP recipients have the same access to shopping alternatives as everyone else, more needs to be done as the income and internet divide is becoming clearer for those who rely on food-assistance programs.
Since the passage of the federal 2014 Farm Bill, retailers in all 50 states who were previously authorized to accept SNAP benefits have been able to offer SNAP curbside delivery based on USDA guidance, but very few actually have. To accept a SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card outside of a physical store, or “curbside,” retailers must acquire a mobile point-of-sale (POS) device that has a secure method for PIN entry. Since third-party processors handle EBT transactions through an internet-based system separate than that of credit and debit cards to protect against fraud and trafficking, mobile point-of-sale equipment is necessary to complete transactions to comply with regulatory requirements for accepting EBT payments. This cannot traditionally be done on the retailers’ website nor on a mobile POS device that does not accept PIN transactions. A USDA study indicated that the reason some authorized retailers are not using the programs approved in the Farm Bill is because of high expenses and lack of existing technology. From what we understand, large retailers such as Giant Eagle, Kroger and Walmart have invested in the necessary technology to accept SNAP curbside at all locations in Ohio but require an online account be created and a minimum purchase amount to be met. Other, smaller retailers that may not have yet invested in a mobile POS device but provide an option for online ordering will allow SNAP customers to order online, pick up their groceries curbside but they have to pay inside of the store.
Being more inclusive, when possible, is beneficial to everyone.
Several states are currently exploring ways to make grocery shopping as safe as possible during this time where consumers want to stockpile, and crowd concerns have increasingly become an issue. As part of Governor DeWine’s extended stay-at-home order, for example, grocery stores, pharmacies and other essential businesses are required to limit their hours and the number of people allowed inside of their stores to help enforce safe social distancing requirements. The Department for Children and Families (DCF) in Vermont, which administers the state’s SNAP program, is leasing retailers mobile POS terminals so they can promote remote grocery shopping options for SNAP beneficiaries. Lawmakers in Massachusetts have requested an order that would require grocery stores that currently offer online ordering and delivery to require customers to pick-up and pay for food outside the store. This would include SNAP recipients, as a mobile cash register would be required in the pick-up area to accept payments for pre-ordered food. Even so, curbside delivery relies on the fact that consumers have a personal means of transportation to get to retailers as public transportation is not conducive to a curbside delivery program.
The 2014 Farm Bill also authorized the USDA to work alongside the Food and Nutrition Service to pilot an online purchasing program for SNAP recipients. The program, currently operating in a handful of states, allows SNAP beneficiaries to shop and pay online using their benefits and either pick up their groceries curbside or have them delivered to their homes. Since its launch in 2019, about 20 states have been approved for the online purchasing pilot with many, such as California and Arizona, expediting their requests due to the pandemic. Many of the same challenges endure for retailers who want to participate in e-commerce for SNAP recipients, as they may need to update company websites and systems for SNAP requirements and security.
SNAP recipients should not be excluded from participating in emerging, innovative ways to access food when they are given a method of payment.
Even if the various technical, logistical and security challenges to remove SNAP restrictions are great and may take some time to work out, we believe Ohio should consider requesting approval to participate in the online purchasing pilot to eliminate food insecurity among vulnerable SNAP beneficiaries. SNAP restrictions are major barriers to the health and well-being of families, which is contradictory to SNAP’s purpose of helping people get access to food. SNAP recipients should not be excluded from participating in emerging, innovative ways to access food when they are given a method of payment, an EBT card, that in stores is treated the same way as any other method of payment. Not only are grocery shopping alternatives more convenient for customers who are trying to stay home as much as possible, they are safer for retail employees who still must report to work while they are trying to minimize their interactions and comply with social distancing guidelines. Being more inclusive, when possible, is beneficial to everyone, since as more Ohioans find themselves out of work because of the pandemic, more Ohioans will find themselves relying on social service programs to maintain quality of life.