SNAP online grocery shopping (Yvonne Knight via AP) Online food stamps shopping
SNAP online grocery shopping (Yvonne Knight via AP)

Last week the state of North Carolina, like most other states, increased its food-benefit dollar amounts, stretched recipients’ certification periods and waived work requirements for qualifying, all aimed at keeping beneficiaries from having to leave their homes. 

“People need to be able to feed their families while also practicing good social distancing and following the governor’s stay-at-home order,” Dr. Mandy Cohen, N.C. Health and Human Services Secretary, said in a press release.

Yet, despite all these concessions for keeping people at home, North Carolina remains one of 44 states where online shopping for pick-up or delivery is not an option for those who pay with federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as “food stamps.” 

Indeed, delivery and pick-up wasn’t an option for any states until last year when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) rolled out its SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot program in New York state. Since then, the program’s launched in Washington state, Alabama, Iowa, Oregon and, last week, in Nebraska. Maryland and New Jersey are expected to round out the pilot program. 

The USDA updated its press release about the online purchasing pilot program April 1, but did not indicate when the program might open in New Jersey, Maryland or beyond. 

The federal agency did not respond to questions submitted by phone Friday and Monday.

“These kinds of crises always fall most heavily on those who have least in our communities.”

Kevin Spears, spokesman for the Center for Child and Family Health in Durham

Outside of SNAP, the other major federal nutrition benefit is WIC: Women, Infants and Children (WIC), which ensures that pregnant women and children have access to healthy food. Currently, no retailer is set-up to fulfill WIC orders online either.

So far, only a handful of retailers are participating in the USDA program, and major NC-based grocers like Harris Teeter and Food Lion are not among them. Neither are grocery-delivery apps like InstaCart or Shipt, although one called FreshExpress is approved to deliver SNAP-paid groceries in two zip codes in the Bronx, NY. National food-sellers Amazon and Walmart are participating.

Social worker Eugenya Rodriguez tried to intervene with a grocery chain on behalf of a client at the Center for Child and Family Health (CCFH) in Durham. The client is a single mother with a pre-existing illness who would ride a bus or a taxi or get a ride from a friend to buy groceries. Rodriguez found that the grocers’ third-party online ordering service wasn’t set up to take SNAP benefits.

“Many clients have lost the transportation support from friends, neighbors or members of their church due to social distancing,” Rodriguez said. “I felt discouraged and frustrated for not being able to help. None of the grocery delivery services in this area accept (SNAP) as a form of payment. Debit cards and major credit cards were the only form of payment.”

“There are procedural, administrative, business-to-business issues that are hanging this up,” said Rodriguez’ colleague, Kevin Spears, CCFH’s director of external relations. “These kinds of crises always fall most heavily on those who have least in our communities. If you’re paying with a credit card, then you can order on InstaCart, but if you’re paying with that SNAP card or your WIC card, then your options are limited.”

Edith Garcia-Soto, mother to nine children ages 1 to 23, said she’s never even thought about using her food stamps to order groceries online.  

“I don’t really know how to use the Internet, so I don’t really know how to access that,” Garcia-Soto said through an interpreter from the East Durham Children’s Initiative (EDCI). “The Internet is something new to me, and I wouldn’t even know how to do that.”

Kristin Lavergne, community services director at Interfaith Council for Social Service, a poverty-focused nonprofit in Orange County, said that while she’s been ordering online for home delivery from her local Lowe’s Foods, many of her agency’s clients don’t have that option. 

“They’re having to go out there during the day and having to expose themselves to whatever’s out there,” she said. “Most services are not geared toward people who have less resources or are low income.”

Kristin Lavergne of Interfaith Council for Social Service

“Allowing people to pay for their food with (SNAP) benefits would help with social distancing, minimize the risk of children being exposed to the virus, and ensure that people have their food as need it, especially baby’s formula,” said Rodriguez. “Hopefully this pilot program could be implemented nationwide at least during this crisis. This would help reduce the hunger in our most already-vulnerable populations.”

California officials have been asking the USDA to implement online grocery-shopping with SNAP for years. In a March 20 letter, two weeks after the first COVID-19 case was confirmed in the US, Alexis Fernandez, nutrition chief at the state’s Department of Social Services, asked the USDA to allow Walmart, Amazon and Safeway, a pilot-approved vendor that hasn’t implemented the plan yet, to begin taking SNAP payments in California. 

“Because this request is being made in response to an emergency,” wrote Fernandez, “California proposes to implement SNAP online purchasing in partnership with only existing (USDA)-approved online retailers.”

Amazon spokesperson Catie Kroon explained that the USDA has an extra security measure, a PIN number, for paying with an Electronic Benefit Transfer card that carries SNAP funds. A special online interface needs to be set-up to process that PIN, and that needs to be approved by the USDA. Amazon does not require a PIN number for debit cards like you might have to give at the grocery store. 

Kroon said that for SNAP users, Amazon has waived the Prime membership that it normally requires for online grocery shopping through its “Fresh” and “Pantry” delivery services, but only the USDA can approve using SNAP for online purchases beyond the current pilot states. 

“Expansions are determined by the USDA and their state affiliates,” Kroon said via email. 

Harris Teeter spokesperson Danna Robinson also referred questions about nutrition benefits to the USDA.

Robinson said her company hired 2,800 new employees in response to the increased demand from people cooking at home and was “seeking an additional 2,300 associates including workers from the hardest-hit sectors like restaurants, hotels and food-service distributors.” 

A webpage detailing Harris Teeter’s COVID response also warns that online “ExpressLane” pick-up orders may be delayed because of high demand. It’s not clear that retailers can even keep up with the demand from existing online customers, let alone expanding methods of payment.

Lavergne said she looked into ordering from Food Lion and Harris Teeter after a five-day wait for delivery from Lowe’s Foods but couldn’t find an opening in the queue for those stores. “People are swamped,” she said. 

Amazon says it’s constantly looking for ways to expand delivery opportunities for customers.

“This is especially important as millions of Americans are being encouraged to stay at home,” said Kristina Herrmann, Amazon’s director of underserved populations. “We continue to work closely with the USDA as the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot grows to expand our capabilities in supporting underserved customers.”  

‘She keeps calling, and nobody answers’

Garcia-Soto does most of her grocery shopping in bulk at Sam’s Club but said her food stamps ran out in mid-March. That’s because the last time her family was certified for nutrition assistance, her 16-year-old daughter worked extra hours at a restaurant during her holiday vacation in December. Because of her daughter’s earnings, the family’s SNAP benefits dropped from $600 to $200 per month, and so far they haven’t been able to successfully communicate with their county’s social-services department to appeal that decision. Her daughter has since returned to school and is taking her high-school classes online. 

Under the NCDHHS COVID-19 response announced last week, that benefit should increase to the maximum amount of $646 for the months of March and April, but that hasn’t come through yet. 

“She keeps calling, and nobody answers,” said Garcia-Soto’s interpreter Yuridiana Alston, a youth advocate with EDCI. “A lot of times clients who receive services aren’t heard and are just ignored. She doesn’t think anything’s going happen.”

Instead, they’ve been relying on her husband’s part-time pay as an electrician, and on food donations from EDCI and The Salvation Army. 

Most of their meals had been coming from Durham Public Schools, which just days ago ended its food distribution because one of its cafeteria workers tested positive for coronavirus. 

Separately from the school system, the nonprofit DPS Foundation will continue to deliver meals each weekend while public schools are closed.

“It scared me because it was somebody who was packaging the food,” said Garcia-Soto. “I’m worried that if I go out that I’ll get infected or I’ll infect others.”

But Garcia-Soto said she’s thankful anyway. The family will not die of hunger, she says. “We’re in good health and everything else kind of comes after that, so that’s what we’re grateful for.”