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Trump's Online SNAP Program Helps Amazon and Walmart, But Leaves Rural People Behind
Approximately 250 miles northeast of Seattle, the sprawling county is home to slightly more than 40,000 residents. Residents of rural counties are more likely to depend on SNAP food assistance. Yet, the move to online SNAP benefits ignores the needs of rural residents and local grocery stores. Photo by Bryce Oates

Trump’s Online SNAP Program Helps Amazon and Walmart, But Leaves Rural People Behind

Reporting by Debbie Weingarten and Bryce Oates

After 33 years in Okanogan Coun­ty, Wash., there is nowhere else Lael Dun­can would want to be — con­sid­er­ing the Okanogan Riv­er, which churns with salmon in the fall; the rare mix of for­est and high­land desert; and the jagged peaks of the North Cas­cades Moun­tains, often referred to as the Alps of North Amer­i­ca. Approx­i­mate­ly 250 miles north­east of Seat­tle, the sprawl­ing coun­ty is home to slight­ly more than 40,000 res­i­dents — which, as Dun­can notes with a laugh, works out to about 7 or 8 square miles per per­son. The coun­ty also has a 17% pover­ty rate.

Pover­ty looks and feels dif­fer­ent in a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty. Much of rur­al Amer­i­ca has no pub­lic trans­porta­tion and res­i­dents may live miles away from basic ser­vices (such as gas sta­tions and gro­cery stores), and the per­va­sive lack of high-speed inter­net often ren­ders tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions irrelevant.

And yet, accord­ing to Dun­can, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the 56-year-old anti-pover­ty group Okanogan Coun­ty Com­mu­ni­ty Action Coun­cil, pol­i­cy to reduce pover­ty is often writ­ten just for urban areas.

This has been one of the hors­es I’ve rid­den for a long time, in terms of say­ing, ​Well, that’s a real­ly great idea for you in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or Seat­tle, but you’re not from around here, are you?’” Dun­can laughs, but then grows seri­ous. ​I get very frus­trat­ed with poli­cies that are designed in an ivory tower.”

One of those ini­tia­tives with seem­ing­ly lit­tle acces­si­bil­i­ty for rur­al Amer­i­cans may be the fledg­ling Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot of the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP, for­mer­ly known as food stamps). The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, online SNAP allows ben­e­fit recip­i­ents to buy gro­ceries on the internet.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) has fea­tured the rapid deploy­ment of online SNAP as a core com­po­nent of its Covid-19 response, claim­ing the pro­gram will serve states that are, as a group, ​home to more than 97% of SNAP par­tic­i­pants,” accord­ing to an August email from the USDA’s Food and Nutri­tion Ser­vice (FNS). In Jan­u­ary, online SNAP had two states par­tic­i­pat­ing. Since the start of the pan­dem­ic, it has grown to 46 and the Dis­trict of Columbia.

Wash­ing­ton — as the sec­ond state in the pro­gram and one of the ear­li­est to feel the impact of Covid-19 — offers a use­ful look at online SNAP’s poten­tial and short­com­ings in rur­al communities.

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion finds that many rur­al res­i­dents say online gro­cery order­ing and deliv­ery is fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with their cul­tur­al, phys­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ties. Instead, the pro­gram is almost entire­ly to the ben­e­fit of retail giants — leav­ing out inde­pen­dent gro­cers — and ignores the gaps in rur­al infrastructure.

 

Leav­ing Inde­pen­dent Stores Behind

The use of SNAP, the nation’s largest food and nutri­tion assis­tance pro­gram, has shot up in the fall­out from the pan­dem­ic. Nation­al­ly, the num­ber of SNAP recip­i­ents has grown to more than 43 mil­lion peo­ple, an increase of 6 mil­lion since March. SNAP recip­i­ents receive a month­ly allowance — deter­mined by a slid­ing scale based on income and fam­i­ly size — which can be spent on food by swip­ing deb­it-like EBT cards (short for ​elec­tron­ic ben­e­fits trans­fer”) at gro­cery stores and oth­er retailers.

SNAP rules and fund­ing are deter­mined by the Farm Bill, debat­ed in Con­gress every five or six years. The 2014 Farm Bill includ­ed a man­date, sought by nutri­tion advo­cates, to ​test the fea­si­bil­i­ty and impli­ca­tions of allow­ing retail food stores to accept SNAP ben­e­fits through online trans­ac­tions.” This leg­is­la­tion marks the begin­ning of the online SNAP program.

The con­cept of online SNAP is sim­ple: Let poor peo­ple buy gro­ceries online and either pick them up or get them deliv­ered. Dur­ing a pan­dem­ic, the pro­gram could be espe­cial­ly use­ful to lim­it social contact.

The nation­wide roll­out of the pilot pro­gram was slow, begin­ning with New York in April 2019 and expand­ing to Wash­ing­ton in Jan­u­ary. But this spring, as the coro­n­avirus and cor­re­spond­ing eco­nom­ic col­lapse deep­ened, the list of par­tic­i­pat­ing states grew rapidly.

Absent from the online pilot, how­ev­er, are the thou­sands of small and inde­pen­dent gro­cers that have been feed­ing low-income rur­al Amer­i­cans for decades.

Phil Black­burn opened his gro­cery store in 2018 in the 2,500-person town of Okanogan, the seat of Okanogan Coun­ty, Wash., replac­ing the super­mar­ket that closed near­ly a dozen years pri­or. Black­burn refur­bished and reopened the store in a rur­al food desert, defined by the USDA as a low-income, low-access cen­sus tract where one-third of the pop­u­la­tion lives at least 10 miles from a grocery.

Today, Black­burn owns four gro­cery stores across rur­al Wash­ing­ton, as well as a laun­dro­mat and a Sub­way sand­wich shop. ​It’s inde­pen­dents for the most part that serve rur­al towns,” Black­burn says.

Trump's Online SNAP Program Helps Amazon and Walmart, But Leaves Rural People Behind

Phil Blackburn opened his grocery store in 2018 in the 2,500-person town of Okanogan, the seat of Okanogan County, Wash. Photo courtesy of Phil Blackburn

Pair that with the fact that rur­al com­mu­ni­ties have high­er pro­por­tions of SNAP recip­i­ents than urban or sub­ur­ban areas, and the inter­de­pen­dence between SNAP and rur­al gro­cers becomes clear. Accord­ing to the Food Research and Action Cen­ter (FRAC), rur­al peo­ple are 25% more like­ly than their urban coun­ter­parts to par­tic­i­pate in SNAP. Nation­al­ly, par­tic­i­pa­tion is high­est among house­holds in rur­al coun­ties (16%), com­pared with house­holds in metro coun­ties (13%), based on data from the Cen­sus Bureau’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey data from 2011 – 2015. Black­burn esti­mates that 16% of his Okanogan store sales are made with SNAP benefits.

The large nation­al chains don’t want to go into a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty,” says Jan Gee, CEO and pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Food Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion (WFIA), which rep­re­sents 87% of the inde­pen­dent gro­cers in the state. She says it’s pri­mar­i­ly inde­pen­dent gro­cers who serve rur­al Washington.

This pat­tern holds nation­al­ly, accord­ing to the USDA’s Eco­nom­ic Research Ser­vice: ​Stud­ies find that areas with a high share of low-income house­holds, as well as rur­al areas, tend to have more inde­pen­dent food retail­ers; rel­a­tive­ly few chain stores oper­ate in these areas.”

In her role at WFIA, Gee has worked since March to bring pan­dem­ic infor­ma­tion to gro­cers through week­ly webi­na­rs. She’s also a loud voice advo­cat­ing for inde­pen­dent gro­cers to be able to par­tic­i­pate as retail­ers in online SNAP, which she says has been ​pret­ty much dom­i­nat­ed” by Ama­zon and Walmart.

While eight retail­ers were orig­i­nal­ly approved by the USDA, only five were par­tic­i­pat­ing as of August. Of the 46 states now enrolled, Ama­zon and Wal­mart are the only retail­ers approved by the USDA in all but seven.

Gee knows of only two WFIA mem­bers who are wad­ing through the appli­ca­tion process with the USDA right now, a process she describes as ​dif­fi­cult and lengthy” with count­less bar­ri­ers. ​It takes a very, very long time with [USDA] to even process the form to get the retail­er into the sys­tem,” Gee says. ​They’ve been used to work­ing with Ama­zon or Walmart.”

Black­burn, who serves as the WFIA board chair, says he looked into the online SNAP appli­ca­tion process and couldn’t believe how com­pli­cat­ed it was. ​I looked at it, and I go, you know, we’re not gonna do that,” he says. ​I mean, they’ve just got too many barriers.”

In order to be approved for the online pilot, Black­burn esti­mates a cost of sev­er­al thou­sand dol­lars per store. It requires a new tech set­up and a new con­tract with yet anoth­er pri­vate ven­dor, Fis­erv, a finan­cial ser­vices cor­po­ra­tion with a monop­oly on the online pro­cess­ing of SNAP ben­e­fit cards. While many rur­al gro­cers have seen an increase in sales dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, the past six months have required sig­nif­i­cant spend­ing on man­dat­ed masks, cart wipes and sneeze guards. To add anoth­er cost would be tough.

USDA’s FNS ​sup­ports the expan­sion of the SNAP Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot and is work­ing with all retail­ers inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing,” accord­ing to a USDA spokesperson.

Imple­ment­ing online pur­chas­ing in SNAP requires col­lab­o­ra­tion between state agen­cies, their third-par­ty proces­sors and retail­ers that wish to par­tic­i­pate,” an FNS rep­re­sen­ta­tive explained to In These Times via email. ​FNS pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal assis­tance and cus­tomer ser­vice to all of these stake­hold­ers based on their spe­cif­ic needs to sup­port suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion. Retail­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in the SNAP online pur­chas­ing pilot is a busi­ness deci­sion made by inter­est­ed retailers.”

In response to ques­tions from In These Times, FNS said it does not track the indi­vid­ual bud­getary impact of the Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot.

In the case of online SNAP, the USDA’s deci­sion to con­tract almost exclu­sive­ly with Ama­zon and Wal­mart is a clear exam­ple of gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy tilt­ing the play­ing field, says Sta­cy Mitchell, co-direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a nation­al research and advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports local economies and cor­po­rate accountability.

This is among a whole bunch of ways in which [the] gov­ern­ment has anoint­ed Wal­mart and Ama­zon as win­ners, to the detri­ment of small­er com­pet­ing busi­ness­es,” Mitchell says. ​We’ve just seen incred­i­ble con­sol­i­da­tion in the retail part of the food sys­tem. And I think it actu­al­ly gets over­looked even by peo­ple who work on food sys­tem issues.”

While much of the crit­i­cism of food monop­o­lies have focused on proces­sors, the retail­ers ​are actu­al­ly more of the dri­ving force,” Mitchell adds.

In a 2019 ILSR report, Mitchell doc­u­ment­ed Walmart’s immense gro­cery mar­ket share, hav­ing cap­tured more than 50% of gro­cery sales in 43 met­ro­pol­i­tan areas and 160 small­er mar­kets. In 38 regions, Walmart’s share of the gro­cery mar­ket is 70% or more. ​Walmart’s near-total mar­ket con­trol gives it extra­or­di­nary pow­er to decide which foods and brands are avail­able local­ly and thus to shape what peo­ple buy and eat,” accord­ing to the report.

Wal­mart con­trols the largest share (30%) of the online gro­cery mar­ket, and Ama­zon fol­lows close­ly behind with 27.1%, accord­ing to an August study from TABS Analytics.

Cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion through the food chain has result­ed in farm­ers and food pro­duc­ers get­ting less of the con­sumer food dol­lar, while cus­tomers are pay­ing more, accord­ing to ILSR. At the same time, Mitchell says, ​a small num­ber of dom­i­nant com­pa­nies in the mid­dle [are] walk­ing off with a big­ger and big­ger chunk of that dollar.”

To try and com­bat such dom­i­nance, Jan Gee has brought the voice of inde­pen­dents to nation­al USDA calls, as well as to statewide meet­ings host­ed by Babs Roberts, direc­tor of the Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vices Divi­sion for Washington’s Depart­ment of Social and Health Ser­vices (DSHS), the agency that admin­is­ters SNAP in the state.

 

Trump's Online SNAP Program Helps Amazon and Walmart, But Leaves Rural People Behind

Washington Democratic Rep. Suzan DelBene (center) stands with Phil Blackburn (second from left), Jan Gee (far right), and other members of the Washington Food Industry Association, which represents 87% of the independent grocers in the state. Photo courtesy of Jan Gee

 

This spring, as the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic began to take hold around the coun­try, Roberts watched the appli­ca­tion num­bers climb: In the first week in April alone, Roberts says her office saw 17,000 new SNAP applications.

For con­text,” Roberts says, ​that’s dou­ble the high­est month we saw dur­ing the Great Recession.”

Roberts says she under­stands inde­pen­dent gro­cers want to be includ­ed in online SNAP. ​I think that their pri­ma­ry con­cern is that, if [the pan­dem­ic] lasts longer and online shop­ping is the way that peo­ple are going to end up using their ben­e­fits, they need a piece of that action,” Roberts says. ​They need to be able to par­tic­i­pate in that process.”

Roberts also says her hands are tied. ​The state does­n’t have the author­i­ty to add retail­ers to the pilot… as much as we might want to. And we haven’t heard any­thing yet that would indi­cate USDA is open­ing it up to more retailers.”

 

Hur­dles to Rur­al Gro­cery Delivery

Even if online SNAP were avail­able to more rur­al gro­cers, it may not be the best way to reach rur­al individuals.

Before online SNAP was wide­ly avail­able, orders and deliv­er­ies were rarely avail­able in rur­al food deserts, accord­ing to a paper pub­lished in Decem­ber 2019 by the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion. Dr. Eric Brandt, now a clin­i­cal lec­tur­er for the divi­sion of car­dio­vas­cu­lar med­i­cine at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Med­ical School, found that, of 59 cen­sus tracts in eight of the pilot states (includ­ing Wash­ing­ton), ​no cen­sus tracts were ful­ly deliv­er­able, 18 cen­sus tracts (30.5%) were par­tial­ly deliv­er­able, and 41 cen­sus tracts (69.5%) were not deliv­er­able.” Notably, Ama­zon and Walmart’s gro­cery ser­vices do not deliv­er to all ZIP codes.

I was wor­ried that [online SNAP] isn’t a cure-all, par­tic­u­lar­ly because I imag­ine that rur­al Amer­i­ca does not have a lot of gro­cery deliv­ery net­works,” Brandt tells In These Times.

While Brandt is a vocal sup­port­er of online SNAP, he wor­ries that, with­out address­ing deliv­ery gaps, rur­al-urban health dis­par­i­ties could increase. As the pro­gram expands, Brandt says, ​We should think about how we can adapt [online SNAP] to serve every­body, if pos­si­ble, par­tic­u­lar­ly the vul­ner­a­ble, which in this case are those in more rur­al areas.”

More gen­er­al­ly, online sales sys­tems are not pop­u­lar among rur­al gro­cers. When David Proc­ter, the for­mer direc­tor of Kansas State University’s Rur­al Gro­cery Ini­tia­tive, sur­veyed his net­work of gro­cers about the pan­dem­ic, he asked whether they had imple­ment­ed remote order­ing and whether they had an online plat­form they were using. ​Most of them say no: that what they’re doing is that they’re tak­ing phone calls, you know, or they do it via Face­book,” Proc­ter says, rather than a for­mal­ized order­ing process.

Black­burn imple­ment­ed an online mar­ket­place for his stores two or three years ago, based on pre­dic­tions that online shop­ping would take off in pop­u­lar­i­ty. ​It’s quite an ordeal,” Black­burn says. Now, online orders account for only about 1.5% of his sales.

Oth­er bar­ri­ers to online gro­cery retail include out­dat­ed point-of-sale sys­tems and lack of broad­band inter­net in many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. For many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, online shop­ping is sim­ply not possible.

As the inter­im direc­tor of Room One, a health and social ser­vices non­prof­it based in Twisp, Wash., 200 miles from Seat­tle, Kel­ly Edwards says the need for food, hous­ing and child­care is high­er than ever amid the pan­dem­ic downturn.

A fiber inter­net line runs the nine miles between the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, but it costs an aver­age of near­ly $8,000 per premise to install, plus a month­ly fee to use it. The oth­er option is wire­less broad­band, which depends on the loca­tion and avail­abil­i­ty of cell tow­ers, and forest­ed or moun­tain­ous areas can still have trou­ble reach­ing it. In more remote areas of the val­ley, inter­net access isn’t avail­able at all.

When the Covid-19 shut­down began in March, Room One staff made the deci­sion to remain open for appoint­ments. Appli­ca­tions for pub­lic goods, such as unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and SNAP, were mov­ing entire­ly online — a logis­ti­cal bar­ri­er for Room One’s many clients who do not have phone, com­put­er or inter­net access. With schools and libraries closed, Room One had the only two pub­lic com­put­ers in the entire Methow Val­ley, a more than 80-mile rur­al stretch home to 6,000 full-time residents.

Like many of the rur­al Wash­ing­ton res­i­dents In These Times inter­viewed for this sto­ry, Edwards had not heard of online SNAP. While smart­phones may large­ly be ubiq­ui­tous in urban or sub­ur­ban cen­ters, Edwards says, ​We just don’t see that here… folks liv­ing at the pover­ty line and low­er, you just can’t afford a month­ly phone plan. You don’t keep your phone with a data plan going… and you def­i­nite­ly don’t have a com­put­er at home.”

With online SNAP unavail­able in the region, Room One expects to con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing gro­cery cards and cash assis­tance to peo­ple locked out of the ben­e­fits appli­ca­tion process.

Oth­er Okanogan Coun­ty res­i­dents do have enough inter­net access to use online SNAP, but describe a frus­trat­ing process and say it’s not a good fit in terms of selection.

Baya Walls lives in the town of Okanogan. Recent­ly, after Wash­ing­ton increased its SNAP allowances, Walls real­ized she could use her EBT card for Ama­zon deliv­ery and Wal­mart curb­side pick­up — but she hasn’t done much gro­cery shop­ping through Ama­zon, as per­ish­able items aren’t avail­able for deliv­ery in her area. Addi­tion­al­ly, she’s found that many of her favorite herbs or shelf-sta­ble ingre­di­ents aren’t eli­gi­ble for online pur­chase. Walls prefers to shop her local gro­cery store and per­son­al­ly select items.

Walls has, how­ev­er, used her ben­e­fit card for curb­side pick­up at the Omak Wal­mart, which requires a min­i­mum order of $35. While Walls describes her­self as ​some­what com­put­er savvy,” she says Walmart’s iden­ti­ty ver­i­fi­ca­tion process was ​dif­fi­cult” and ​frus­trat­ing,” requir­ing mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent entries of per­son­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion numbers.

Walls also spent hours set­ting up a Wal­mart SNAP account on a smart­phone for a friend who is in her 60s and does not own a car. Tech­nol­o­gy is ​a big bar­ri­er for the old­er gen­er­a­tion, and that gets lost in the shuf­fle,” Walls says, adding that there can also be cul­tur­al beliefs about online shop­ping being less safe. ​I have one oth­er old­er friend, and she does­n’t trust the inter­net,” Walls says. ​She refus­es to do any online shop­ping, because she’s very afraid of fraud.”

While Walls, who is 52 and was forced to retire ear­ly due to med­ical prob­lems, does wor­ry about online secu­ri­ty, she says, ​The fact that I can use my EBT ben­e­fits online is some­thing that makes life a lit­tle eas­i­er for me. Do I wor­ry about the safe­ty of my infor­ma­tion? Yes, I do… but it’s the risk that I’m tak­ing for the sake of convenience.”

Online pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty researchers have raised sim­i­lar con­cerns, specif­i­cal­ly about online SNAP. ​I think there’s enough infor­ma­tion that sug­gests that the dis­trust is war­rant­ed,” says Katha­ri­na Kopp, deputy direc­tor and direc­tor for pol­i­cy at the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­ra­cy (CDD).

SNAP has come a long way from the days of paper food stamps, count­ed and exchanged at a cash reg­is­ter. Now, ben­e­fits cards are swiped just like deb­it cards, an expe­ri­ence far less stig­ma­tiz­ing for users. A shift to online SNAP offers even more dis­cre­tion and con­ve­nience — but Kopp and her col­leagues argue there is a cost.

Peo­ple who need gov­ern­ment food assis­tance should be giv­en access to the same kinds of online ser­vices that oth­ers in our coun­try are using to feed their fam­i­lies with­out hav­ing to increase their risks of becom­ing ill,” accord­ing to the CDD report, ​Does Buy­ing Gro­ceries Online Put SNAP Par­tic­i­pants At Risk?”, which Kopp co-authored. ​The SNAP online pur­chas­ing pro­gram could be a vital tool for achiev­ing that goal.”

But the report cau­tions SNAP recip­i­ents may face ​increased data col­lec­tion and sur­veil­lance, a flood of intru­sive and manip­u­la­tive online mar­ket­ing tech­niques, and per­va­sive pro­mo­tion of unhealthy foods.”

In an unreg­u­lat­ed dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment, Kopp is con­cerned that Big Data, when deployed by pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions to opti­mize their bot­tom lines, has the effect of actu­al­ly exac­er­bat­ing inequities. ​Peo­ple already at the bot­tom of the eco­nom­ic lad­der, with these data prac­tices, will tend to be clas­si­fied — sort­ed — and are the most like­ly to be exploit­ed and tak­en advan­tage of,” Kopp says.

As part of their research, Kopp and her col­leagues reviewed the pri­va­cy poli­cies and data track­ing prac­tices of the approved online SNAP retail­ers, includ­ing Ama­zon and Wal­mart. They found numer­ous fail­ures to pro­tect SNAP recip­i­ent data, par­tic­u­lar­ly from preda­to­ry adver­tis­ing tac­tics used by retail­ers, and that the USDA ​relied on the flawed and mis­lead­ing pri­va­cy poli­cies of the par­tic­i­pat­ing com­pa­nies.” Ulti­mate­ly, says Kopp, the USDA has ​a respon­si­bil­i­ty to cre­ate a safe envi­ron­ment” before encour­ag­ing peo­ple to go online.

We know that peo­ple care about how their infor­ma­tion is used and shared,” Kristi­na Her­rmann, Amazon’s direc­tor of under­served pop­u­la­tions, writes in an email to In These Times. ​We also know that peo­ple won’t want to do busi­ness with us if they don’t trust us to han­dle their infor­ma­tion care­ful­ly and sen­si­bly. Ama­zon com­plies with applic­a­ble law on cus­tomer data and pri­va­cy notices. We only share cus­tomer infor­ma­tion as described in our pri­va­cy notice.”

Lack of access and dis­trust of the sys­tem, as well as the rel­a­tive new­ness of the pro­gram, may be con­tribut­ing to online SNAP’s slug­gish user uptake. Babs Roberts, in Wash­ing­ton, says the online SNAP pro­gram took off slow­ly once it became oper­a­tional in Jan­u­ary. By the end of June, only 18,500 Wash­ing­ton SNAP card­hold­ers had used their ben­e­fits online, a small per­cent­age of SNAP recip­i­ents statewide. A coun­ty-by-coun­ty break­down of online SNAP usage is not cur­rent­ly available.

In part, the low par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers can cer­tain­ly be attrib­uted to the infan­cy of the pro­gram. But these ear­ly num­bers remain low­er than both Gee and Roberts had antic­i­pat­ed. ​Some of these folks have trans­porta­tion issues,” Gee says. ​And a lot of them are elder­ly, and they don’t want to go to a store right now. It is strange to me that those num­bers did­n’t explode like online pur­chas­ing explod­ed” dur­ing the pandemic.

Nation­al­ly, accord­ing to a USDA spokesper­son, ​close to 35,000 house­holds shopped online using their SNAP ben­e­fits” in March. ​By com­par­i­son, in July 2020, over 940,000 house­holds shopped online using SNAP benefits.”

Roberts says she antic­i­pates the pro­gram will grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty, giv­en how online shop­ping has increased dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. ​But I don’t think it’s going to get real­ly huge­ly pop­u­lar until we can expand the base of retail­ers,” she says. ​There isn’t a Wal­mart every­where, and Ama­zon isn’t deliv­er­ing fresh pro­duce or per­ish­able items every­where. So there are still some lim­i­ta­tions caus­ing some peo­ple to just go to the gro­cery store.”

 

Alter­nate Solutions

Dur­ing a pan­dem­ic that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harms vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, online SNAP cer­tain­ly has its place. A safe and func­tion­al SNAP pro­gram that pro­vides equi­ty to recip­i­ents, online and in-per­son, is para­mount to feed­ing mil­lions of Amer­i­cans as the econ­o­my is rebuilt.

The role of SNAP as an eco­nom­ic dri­ver is well doc­u­ment­ed. ​It has a mul­ti­pli­er effect on local eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty,” says Aaron Shi­er, senior gov­ern­ment rela­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Nation­al Farm­ers Union (NFU). ​There’s more than a dol­lar spent for every SNAP dol­lar spent, and that means jobs and increased mar­kets for farm­ers and the food that they sell.”

Shi­er says NFU is gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ive of online SNAP and believes ​it is a step in the right direc­tion with con­sumers increas­ing­ly opt­ing to shop for their gro­ceries online.” But as an orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing a large­ly rur­al mem­ber­ship, Shi­er adds that there are def­i­nite­ly bar­ri­ers for online SNAP in rur­al communities.

Per­haps more impor­tant than any focus on online SNAP is the need to expand ben­e­fits and fund­ing dur­ing this time that has been so dif­fi­cult for so many Amer­i­cans,” Shi­er says.

One obvi­ous next step could be for Con­gress to pass the Expand­ing SNAP Options Act, co-spon­sored by Illi­nois Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sens. Tam­my Duck­worth and Dick Durbin. The act would require the USDA to imple­ment online SNAP pur­chas­ing in all states, pro­vide $25 mil­lion to devel­op and main­tain an online redemp­tion por­tal for inde­pen­dent gro­cers and pro­vide $75 mil­lion for the cre­ation of a USDA Tech­ni­cal Assis­tance Cen­ter to facil­i­tate online pur­chas­ing and help small­er retail­ers par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram. A com­pan­ion House bill was intro­duced by Illi­nois Demo­c­ra­t­ic Reps. Robin Kel­ly, Bob­by Rush and Jesus ​Chuy” Gar­cia, as well as New Jer­sey Rep. Don­ald Payne Jr. and D.C. Del­e­gate Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton as orig­i­nal co-spon­sors. Nei­ther bill has moved forward.

But with­out major invest­ments in rur­al infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment — such as high-speed inter­net — tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions to rur­al hunger and pover­ty are like­ly to fall short, as researchers con­tin­ue to link bet­ter job and income per­for­mance to high-speed inter­net access. The oth­er side of invest­ing in high-speed inter­net is mak­ing sure it’s safe to use by pass­ing fed­er­al pri­va­cy legislation.

While fix­ing the gaps in online SNAP is a giv­en, advo­cates also point to the impor­tance of increas­ing SNAP ben­e­fits overall.

SNAP is a tremen­dous tool, and [SNAP] cards are life-sav­ing for peo­ple,” says Room One’s Kel­ly Edwards. ​We would 100% rather keep the mon­ey in the val­ley with fam­i­ly-owned busi­ness­es and grow­ers,” as opposed to Ama­zon or Wal­mart, where the mon­ey leaves the community.

While the Food Research and Action Cen­ter (FRAC) sup­ports online SNAP, and helped advo­cate for its cre­ation and inclu­sion in the 2014 Farm Bill, ​the big­gies on our list are mak­ing sure peo­ple have the ade­quate resources for them­selves, but also so that the econ­o­my gets the boost that it needs,” says FRAC’s Ellen Vollinger.

And, this isn’t rock­et sci­ence either, but the rea­son there’s hunger is the eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties,” Vollinger adds. ​It’s not [that we’re lack­ing] suf­fi­cient food in the coun­try. It’s that peo­ple don’t have good eco­nom­ic circumstances.”

SNAP advo­cates, includ­ing FRAC and the Nation­al Farm­ers Union, have called for anoth­er round of pan­dem­ic stim­u­lus with a 15% increase to SNAP fund­ing and an increase in min­i­mum month­ly ben­e­fits, sought by House Democ­rats in the HEROES Act passed in May.

Although an expan­sion of SNAP ben­e­fits makes eco­nom­ic sense, it is like­ly to face sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers. When the 2018 Farm Bill was being nego­ti­at­ed, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the House Repub­li­can Free­dom Cau­cus delayed the bill for months, attempt­ing to enact deep SNAP cuts. Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Son­ny Per­due, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and then-House Speak­er Paul Ryan (R‑Wis.) all cam­paigned on SNAP cuts and new work require­ments for the program’s recipients.

Though Trump and con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans ulti­mate­ly relent­ed and passed the Farm Bill, in Decem­ber 2019 Trump signed an exec­u­tive order reim­pos­ing work require­ments on SNAP recip­i­ents between the ages of 18 and 49 who are child­less and not dis­abled. These ​able-bod­ied adults” were already required to work at least 20 hours a week to qual­i­fy for SNAP ben­e­fits, but states had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to offer excep­tions for recip­i­ents in areas with high unem­ploy­ment rates. The USDA esti­mat­ed, at the time, that 688,000 peo­ple would lose access to SNAP because of the changes, reduc­ing SNAP spend­ing by $5.5 bil­lion over five years.

Trump’s USDA con­tin­ues to pur­sue these work require­ments even dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and despite judi­cial rul­ings against them — and has large­ly neglect­ed to use oth­er SNAP tools to sup­port the pan­dem­ic response.

It’s just stun­ning the degree to which USDA has not cre­at­ed more flex­i­bil­i­ty and adapt­ed more tools of the pro­gram,” such as dis­as­ter SNAP, Vollinger says — as pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can pres­i­dents have. Dis­as­ter SNAP is part of the fed­er­al emer­gency response to wild­fires, tor­na­does, floods, hur­ri­canes, mega-storms and oth­er nat­ur­al dis­as­ters. Although the FNS Covid-19 response includes per­mit­ting states to issue emer­gency allot­ments that would increase ben­e­fits for some exist­ing SNAP house­holds, dis­as­ter SNAP would allow fam­i­lies in fed­er­al­ly declared dis­as­ter areas who lose a job, can’t get access to their bank funds, or lose food or hous­ing to receive ben­e­fits when they wouldn’t oth­er­wise be eligible.

What has been frus­trat­ing, gen­er­al­ly, about the admin­is­tra­tion’s approach on SNAP is the degree to which they don’t use all the tools in the tool­box,” Vollinger says.

Sen­ate Repub­li­cans have so far refused sig­nif­i­cant SNAP expan­sion, though an $8 bil­lion one-time increase in nutri­tion sup­port was includ­ed in the con­tin­u­ing bud­get res­o­lu­tion passed in late Sep­tem­ber to avoid an Octo­ber gov­ern­ment shutdown.

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, while the resilience of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties is appar­ent, more fund­ing and sup­port would cer­tain­ly help alle­vi­ate some of the strain.

For all the deficits and lack of access that peo­ple will describe a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty by, I feel like the rich­ness and the strength is actu­al­ly the com­mu­ni­ty,” Edwards says. ​Because we’re used to not hav­ing state or coun­ty or oth­er sup­port com­ing in, and so we have to take care of each oth­er… we’ve come to rely on ourselves.”

This arti­cle was sup­port­ed by a grant from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project. Fact-check­­ing was pro­vid­ed by Mad­die Cruz. 

 

Debbie Weingarten is a writer and edi­tor based in Tuc­son, Ari­zona, with a back­ground in food sys­tems, agri­cul­ture, and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing. Her jour­nal­ism and cre­ative non­fic­tion has appeared in the New York TimesThe New York Review of BooksThe Guardian, the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing ProjectGuer­ni­ca, and Lon­greads, and else­where. She was a final­ist for the James Beard Award in Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

Bryce Oates is a free­lance writer cov­er­ing rur­al pol­i­cy, peo­ple, places and pol­i­tics. His work includes news report­ing, news fea­tures, nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion and analy­sis pieces. Oates has been work­ing on fed­er­al farm and food pol­i­cy, pub­lic lands and con­ser­va­tion issues, cli­mate change and eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty in rur­al Amer­i­ca for more than 20 years.

Co-published with In These Times.

Save An Endangered Species: Journalists

Debbie Weingarten is a former farmer and a James Beard Award-nominated writer and editor based in Tucson, Arizona.

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