EBT Online Purchasing: States Must Expand Food Assistance While Keeping People Safe

Update: The USDA has moved swiftly in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic to address the low number of states participating online purchasing pilot program due to administrative and technological barriers. Now 36 states and the District of Columbia have been approved to participate in the program. Secretary Perdue has also announced an expansion of independently owned and operated retail stores beyond those included in the original pilot. Therefore, more SNAP authorized retailers will be accepting SNAP benefits online. Now, almost 90% of SNAP recipients will soon be able to purchase their groceries online.

By Parker Gilkesson

With most of the United States under a “stay-at-home” order, millions of people are having groceries or meals delivered to minimize their exposure to COVID-19. This is particularly important for those who are elderly or have disabilities, such as asthma or  immunocompromised status. However, purchasing groceries online has been a luxury that many families with low incomes have not been able to do. Barriers to online shopping create a challenge for people who count on the federal anti-hunger program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). To fight hunger during this pandemic, state lawmakers can expand access to both grocery delivery, curbside pickup and restaurant meals programs.

Since 2019, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has supported an online grocery purchasing pilot program for people using SNAP. Shoppers can use their Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which are like SNAP-issued debit cards, to buy groceries online through select stores. Thirteen states allow SNAP benefits to be used for online orders, with West Virginia, North Carolina, D.C., Nebraska, Arizona, and California just added this month. Prior to this crisis, only seven states were approved. During this pandemic, as public health experts emphasize social distancing, there has been much interest in expanding online ordering. But, unfortunately, this solution is much more complicated than expected. Some states are reporting that it might take up to six months or longer to implement—not fast enough to respond to families’ immediate need.

The delay revolves around how EBT funds are processed and the capability of stores to accept payment online. All states deliver SNAP benefits electronically through EBT. EBT cards can only be used at approved retailers, which must have a third-party system to process the transactions. Both the third-party processor and the store must be able to handle online orders. In states where the pilot program has begun, there are very few stores, including Amazon and Walmart, that have been selected to participate—leaving out most local grocery stores. States should work to rapidly expand the stores available for online ordering, and ensure that they waive delivery fees for people enrolled in SNAP.

Another strategy states can use immediately to meet the needs of people as they are social distancing, is to highlight the option to shop using “curbside pickup.” Stores like Walmart are offering this alternative to home delivery in light of social distancing guidance. Ohio’s governor worked with the USDA to ensure people using SNAP have a “click and collect” option; that is, families can order their groceries online and use their EBT card upon pickup. If stores accept EBT and have a portable system that accepts payment, they should be able to accept it as a form of payment at curbside pickup. All stores that are capable of providing this service should be encouraged to offer it. This approach can also help families receiving benefits under the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which supports good nutrition for pregnant women, new moms, and their children.

In addition, states should consider solutions that help families with low incomes get a hot meal at either a grocery store or restaurant. Lawmakers can request a hot meal waiver from the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) so people enrolled in SNAP can purchase hot items like rotisserie chickens at the grocery store. Only D.C. and Tennessee have requested this waiver so far. Another option is implementing a Restaurant Meals Program, similar to California’s. With this effort, individuals who use SNAP and are homeless or have a disability can buy hot meals from participating restaurants. 

The current public health crisis has highlighted many inequities in our social safety net. It is clear that the economic damage will be long-lasting. Therefore, people need more comprehensive support that will tie all relief—including unemployment benefits, SNAP, increased funding to Medicaid, etc.—to economic indicators so that they last until the labor market recovers. Programs like SNAP will remain critical to helping people with low incomes stay healthy. To ensure all families can thrive, the next COVID-19 stimulus package needs to include long-term improvements to these programs, including boosting benefits and lifting arbitrary restrictions that limit access. 

This pandemic provides an opportunity to highlight and address some of the administrative and technical barriers to helping Americans in a crisis like COVID-19. It is important that the changes made during this crisis are documented and continued even after the labor market recovers.