The new Amazon Go here in Seattle generated a lot of buzz when it opened last month. And while the store is a miracle of technology, it’s yet another venue where people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, can’t shop.
It’s modern roadblocks like this that caused Eli Calderón Morin to co-found All_ebt, a Los Angeles-based startup that helps people on food stamps participate in the digital economy that so often leaves them behind. Approximately 43 million Americans receive SNAP assistance, with money delivered via an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to facilitate payments. The problem is that currently, these EBT cards can only be used in select physical stores at the point of sale, and not online.
According to Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center:
- 23.5 million people live in low-income areas more than one mile from a supermarket.
- Low-income zip codes have 30 percent more convenience stores, which tend to lack healthy items, than middle-income zip codes.
The ability for SNAP participants to order groceries via delivery from places like Amazon Fresh or even Safeway online provides a new avenue for people to access healthier food.
All_ebt wants to become a payment platform for EBT transactions. The first step in this process has been the creation of a Facebook Messenger app. To use it, SNAP participants create an All_ebt account and upload a picture of their EBT card or WIC coupon. Once created, users are issued a virtual wallet that can be used to buy food online.
So, when a user needs $50 for groceries, All_ebt is authorized to charge that EBT card $50. All_ebt then provides $50 for use in the new virtual wallet. Morin is quick to point out that money is not being transferred, and purchases made via All_ebt must still adhere to the purchasing restrictions that come with any EBT purchase (no alcohol, no tobacco, etc.).
Morin wants everyone to have the same opportunity to eat healthier food. To help people even more, All_ebt has set up a pop-up location in East LA, complete with a mini supermarket to sign people up and show them how to use the service. Morin wouldn’t give specific numbers, but says that they sign up 5–10 people a day.
Providing access to online transactions for lower income households has also caught the attention of the government, which announced a SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot last year. Retailers such as Amazon, Safeway and Wal-Mart are participants in the program. The USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service expects the pilot to launch in 2018.
All_ebt was part of the Visa developer program and was a finalist in the Visa Platform Challenge. The company is bootstrapped, with seven people working there, and has begun the search for investors. While All_ebt is currently refining its business model, Morin says they want to become like Braintree and Stripe for EBT transactions, and want to have merchants pay the transaction fee.
Like so many things these days, the very idea of food stamps has become highly politicized. Regardless of your party affiliation, All_ebt’s mission to make healthy food more available to everyone is a good one and a goal worth supporting.