Today, the USDA announced the launch of a pilot program that will make online grocery shopping available to those receiving SNAP benefits. According to the official press release, “lessons learned from this pilot are expected to inform future efforts to expand online purchasing in SNAP.”

To start, the program allows those SNAP users in the state of New York with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards (also issued by New York) to order groceries online, for either pickup or delivery. These users will be able to buy USDA-approved food products (No booze, for example.) SNAP benefits do not cover service or delivery fees.

As of right now, the USDA is working with Amazon as well as Walmart on the program. Regional chain ShopRite will join next week. For now, Amazon and ShopRite are piloting the program in New York City only; Walmart is serving upstate New York areas. In the coming months, the pilot will expand to other areas of New York as well as Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, the press release stated.

The program is launching at a time when online grocery is growing rapidly. Nielsen recently revealed that roughly a quarter of Americans buy groceries online, and that number will jump to 70 percent over the next few years.

But the roughly 39 million Americans using SNAP (also known as Food Stamps), have largely been left out of this brave new world of online shopping. A startup called All_ebt made some progress at the end of 2018 by using Facebook Messenger and virtual Visa cards to help SNAP users shop online.

Now, however, it seems the Feds are finally starting to recognize on a national level the need to include lower-income and underbanked populations, who have the same busy schedules as anyone else, or may suffer from disabilities that make physically going to a grocery store challenging.

USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue called this need out in the press release:

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online. As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance, too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.”

As online grocery continues to grow, retailers would be wise to join in these initiatives to include SNAP users and others on assistance programs, or risk facing the kind of backlash Amazon recently got over its Go stores, which many have seen as discriminating against lower-income and underbanked households. We expect other major grocery retailers to join the SNAP program in future, so stay tuned.

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