Although the federal 2014 Farm Bill authorized a pilot Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) online food purchasing program by early 2020 only a handful of states and retailers were onboarded. This was also subsequently the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States.
In recent years, big box grocery retailers such as Walmart, Kroger, Meijer and Giant Eagle have allowed customers who pay with a credit or debit card to shop for food online, pay online and pickup “curbside.” In most cases this means that not only do customers not have to physically enter the store, they don’t have to get out of their vehicles. In a previous piece, I discussed just how imperative grocery shopping alternatives, such as contactless-curbside pickup and grocery delivery, can be during the current public health emergency where social distancing and avoiding indoor spaces with others who don’t live with you are the best ways to slow the spread and protect yourself. These COVID-19 friendly opportunities, however, have not always been afforded to all customers, with SNAP beneficiaries in most states unable to participate in the online purchasing program before the pilot concluded.
Since the publication of that piece last spring, the SNAP online purchasing pilot grew exponentially to include Ohio, allowing SNAP beneficiaries to grocery shop and pay online using their Ohio Direction or Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transaction (P-EBT) card. Until recently, the only retailers approved to accept SNAP payments online in Ohio were Walmart and Amazon, both of which offered delivery to certain ZIP codes for a fee that could not be paid for with SNAP benefits. In December 2020, the grocery shopping and delivery service Instacart announced a partnership with Aldi. The new partnership allows Instacart shoppers to use SNAP cards to buy groceries for same-day delivery and pickup at more than 1,000 Aldi stores nationwide, including in Ohio. 
The new partnership allows Instacart shoppers to use SNAP cards to buy groceries for same-day delivery and pickup at more than 1,000 Aldi stores nationwide, including in Ohio.
While this expansion of SNAP online purchasing is sure to help millions of Americans with food security as the pandemic rages on, numerous barriers remain for many low-income and SNAP households to fully take advantage of online purchasing and shopping alternatives. While pickup or curbside delivery is often free at large retailers, this perk is generally only applied once orders surpass a certain amount, i.e. Kroger is currently $35, Meijer is currently $50. Additionally, curbside service is only useful for individuals who have access to private transportation, and it relies on the assumption that customers have access to private transportation during specified pickup windows.
For those without access to transportation, retailers can arrange to have online orders delivered to homes within the delivery area. Kroger currently charges $9.95 for this service, Giant Eagle charges $9.95 and Instacart, which is not available to use at all retailers, charges $3.99. Instacart will waive the delivery and/or pickup fee on the first three SNAP orders for each customer with EBT cards linked to their accounts through March 16. 
More than 5 percent, or about 7.1 million American households, are unbanked.
Another obstacle is that even if a SNAP beneficiary only purchases EBT-eligible items through online purchasing platforms, individuals still need to have a credit or debit card linked to the account to process the order. This card is used to pay for delivery fees, service fees, tips and any other associated charges that cannot be paid for with SNAP benefits. Instacart, for example, charges a service fee separate from the delivery fee, and tip, which covers operating costs including insurance, background checks, and customer support. This fee, unlike the delivery expense, is not a flat fee but rather is based on each order’s subtotal. 
With the rise in pre-paid debit cards, there are no official statistics on how many Americans have a credit or debit card, however we do know that the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) reports that more than 5 percent, or about 7.1 million American households, are unbanked.  Retailers often put temporary holds on credit/debit cards for orders, which go away once the order is completed with an EBT card. If individuals don’t have enough funds available in their accounts, orders may be declined even if there are enough funds on EBT cards.
If individuals don’t have enough funds available in their accounts, orders may be declined even if there are enough funds on EBT cards.
Finally, online food purchasing relies on stable internet or cellular connection and access to a device capable of accessing the web. Based on our previous research on telehealth and access to remote services, we know that many Ohioans, both urban and rural, do not have access to reliable broadband. It’s incredibly important that we continue to celebrate the advances made by the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services and our advocacy partners in ensuring SNAP recipients have the same shopping options and experiences as everyone else throughout the pandemic. We are optimistic that this work will continue trying to tackle the challenges – many of them social determinants of health – that still keep many Ohioans from accessing mainstream grocery delivery services.