At a time when people are trying to practice social distancing, those who use food stamps are still being required to make their purchases inside the grocery store instead of ordering online.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has only allowed six states to approve the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly known as the food stamp program, for online grocery ordering.
Pennsylvania isn’t one of those states.
While the coronavirus outbreak has now thrown the issue into the spotlight, the USDA invited states to volunteer for the pilot program in September 2016. In early 2017, the USDA announced that the program would be offered in Iowa, Maryland, Mississippi, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington. New York was the first to allow shoppers to use food stamps to make online grocery store orders, according to the USDA. While New Jersey and Maryland were both announced as states permitted to allow shoppers to use food stamps to place online orders, neither state has begun to do so. The USDA didn’t immediately respond on Tuesday when asked to explain when service would become available in Maryland or New Jersey.
The lack of access to online ordering is an example real world impact of the inequality between those with financial means and the poor, as people who can afford to pay for their groceries can opt to avoid the grocery store while those using food stamps can’t, said Ken Regal, executive director of Just Harvest, a Pittsburgh-based advocacy group.
Advocates would like to see the USDA loosen its rules to make it easier for all stores that accept food stamps can also take online orders, he said.
Thus far, it’s far from clear that the USDA has plans to expand the program even temporarily to help people practice social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak, Regal said.
“There is no indication from the USDA that they are willing to do that, let alone that they are poised to do it,” he said.
Online ordering “is the most safe” option especially for people who are medically vulnerable, he said. “During this health emergency, people are being told to go out as little as possible.”
Gov. Tom Wolf last week sent a letter urging the USDA to open up the program to other states and other stores that accept food stamps for in-store purchases.
“It is inhumane to consider that Pennsylvanians who are doing the responsible thing by staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities would go hungry because of USDA’s limiting interpretations and refusal to cut bureaucratic red tape during a national crisis,” Wolf said.
U.S. Sen. Bob Casey has been lobbying the USDA to relax the rules regarding online grocery ordering with food stamps, as well.
Casey said the he took an interest in the issue after being alerted to the regulation by a constituent.
“We must do everything we can to address these barriers by leveraging existing flexibilities and partnering with the retailers who have the ability to provide much needed grocery delivery services to all who need it,” he said.
Casey has introduced legislation that would people to use food stamps to order online and get the groceries delivered to their home.
“During this time of national crisis, the federal government must help those in need by increasing SNAP benefits and ensuring SNAP participants can receive home food delivery,” Casey said.
Yvonne Knight, who has respiratory problems that make her especially vulnerable in the coronavirus pandemic, can’t buy groceries online with her food stamps — even though each trip to the store is now a risky endeavor.
Going out to buy food terrifies the 38-year-old woman with cerebral palsy, but she is one of millions of people who receive food aid through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program that can’t be used in flexible ways.
“Every time I go out, I put myself at risk — and other people,” said Knight, who lives in Erie, Pennsylvania. “I’m so terrified when people come up to me now. I don’t want to go out to the store.”
New York became the first state to allow people using food stamps to place grocery orders in April, 2019. Washington began allowing people to use food stamps for online grocery orders in January, and in March, Alabama, Iowa and Oregon began to do so.
In New York, only Shop Rite, Walmart and Amazon accept food stamps for online orders. In Iowa, Nebraska, Oregon and Washington, the only stores that take food stamps for online orders are Amazon and Walmart.
Regal said that he can understand that there may be concerns about expanding the program when the number of stores accepting food stamps for online ordering is so limited.
In a statement, the USDA said that while there’s been interest from states, the federal agency believes it would be up to the state to determine if there are grocery stores willing to offer the service.
“USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this Coronavirus epidemic,” USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue said in a statement provided by the agency.