USDA inches toward allowing online grocery purchases with food stamps

By Elizabeth Crawford

- Last updated on GMT

Source: iStock
Source: iStock

Related tags Nutrition Usda

Under pressure from industry, consumers and legislators, the US Department of Agriculture is exploring how Americans can use food stamps to buy groceries online.

The Department issued a call to action Sept. 15 for up to five retailers in three states to test accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – more commonly known as food stamps – through online transactions.

The two-year pilot, which is slated to begin next summer was mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill as a way to improve access to healthy food for SNAP participants living in areas without grocery stores or who have mobility and transportation challenges.

USDA’s call comes after online retailer Thrive Market in June launched a petition asking USDA to allow food stamp recipients to use their benefits online. It explained the change is necessary because more than 23 million Americans live in food deserts with little or no access to healthy food.

The petition, which has garnered more than 300,000 signatures in less than two months, also argues “enabling people to buy healthy food with their stamps regardless of where they live … can help prevent disease and save lives.”

It explains a healthy diet can help prevent and manage heart disease and diabetes, which respectively cost the medical system $444 billion and $245 billion annually to manage.

Lawmakers pressure USDA to reduce timeline

Lawmakers echo the petition’s health cost-savings sentiment in a letter sent to USDA Sept. 12 that also underscores the need for more timely action by the department.

In the letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsak, Sen. Cory Booker and Reps. Barbara Lee and Tim Ryan urge the department to move up the start time of the pilot, shorten its timeframe and allow all eligible retailers to participate.

They attribute their sense of urgency to the failure of many government policies and programs to keep pace with the dramatic improvement in healthy food access that technology offers.

“Expanding SNAP purchases through online transactions would not only help our economy, but it would help us move toward a hunger-free and more nutritious America,”​ they say.

Technical and security challenges slow progress

Speeding up implementation may not be possible though.

USDA explains that online SNAP transactions present unique technical and security issues that could take time to resolve before the pilot program can be expanded nationwide.

The first major challenge is SNAP debit transactions require a secure customer entered PIN to help prevent and detect trafficking. Currently only one company provides industry-tested and –approved secure encrypted PIN solutions for SNAP purchasing and USDA says it is working with that company to bring the services online.

Another challenge is ensuring online purchase systems are compatible with individual state systems for processing the SNAP benefits, USDA said.

Retailers also will need to be able to separate SNAP eligible and ineligible items from an order, which likely will involve accepting multiple payment methods for one transaction, USDA notes.

Retailers interested in participating can apply for the pilot online here​. 

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