USDA recently announced a new pilot program for New York State
participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program
(SNAP). They will now be able to use their Electronic Benefit
Transfer cards to buy foods online.
At first glance, this seems like a terrific idea for solving
problems of limited access to healthy foods (“food deserts”),
and it gives SNAP participants more options and easier access.
But participants will have to pay service or delivery charges
with their own money. For this and other rules, see the SNAP Online
Purchasing pilot webpage. Will they end up paying more or
less for foods? We will have to see how the pilot plays out to
At the moment, one clear conclusion is the benefit to Big
Retail. Amazon and ShopRite will run the program in New York
City. Walmart will run it upstate.
writing in Civil Eats, has the best analysis of this program
I’ve seen so far.
For those who have worked for decades to make healthful food
available in low-income communities, the pilot has the potential to
be a game-changer, enabling them to shift attention from physical
access to supermarkets to the economic inequality at the root of
food insecurity. But if the SNAP pilot will actually make people
healthier, six questions demand attention [his article discusses
these in detail]:
1. Does Online Shopping Mean Healthier Choices?
2. Will Shopping at Home Make People Less Active and More
3. Will Local Food Retailers be Able to Compete?
4. Will it Be Bad for Worker Health?
5. Will it Increase Environmental Health Problems?
6. Will it Create a Digital Food Divide?
SNAP, Cohen points out
is moving online, whether we like it or not, and ignoring the
fact that in a few years some 40 million people will change their
grocery shopping habits would be a serious mistake. As the physical
barriers to food fall away for SNAP participants, it will be up to
policymakers and the public health community to ensure that the
food retail sector—virtual as well as brick and mortar—supports
healthy diets and true access for all.