One of the greatest lasting impacts of COVID-19 is how people grocery shop. Self-checkout is here to stay, new technologies are making grocery pickup easier, and major online brands are trying even harder to become your go-to grocer. For the tens of millions of people who lost their jobs in the early months of the pandemic, that meant relying on Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to be able to afford groceries at all. And the number of people using SNAP benefits has remained steady since: There are currently around 21.6 million households in the U.S. that rely on the program.
Now, the United States Department of Agriculture is working to make sure the program’s capabilities align with the recent shift in the grocery store landscape. Grocery Dive reports that in January 2020, only 20,000 households used SNAP online. In August 2022, that number grew to 3.5 million. The USDA is now pushing to approve even more online retailers to accept SNAP.
The first Food Stamp Program (FSP) ran in the United States from 1939 to 1943, offering relief to more than 20 million people throughout that time. It was during World War II, and the stamp system was put in place to not only address unemployment but also unmarketable food surplus. You would buy orange stamps that allowed you to get any food for a dollar, and then receive 50 cents’ worth of blue stamps that could only be used on foods that the Department of Agriculture considered surplus. This first trial eventually ended because unemployment and surplus were no longer issues.
Another pilot program was introduced in 1961, and in 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson passed the Food Stamp Act to strengthen the agricultural economy and provide nutritional items to low-income households. From the very beginning there were restrictions: Food stamps could not be used to purchase alcohol or imported items.
Over the years the details evolved to both expand the program and provide more guidelines around who could use food stamps and how. In 1971, uniform standards of eligibility and work requirements were put in place. In 1977, the eligibility requirements were made even more strict in an effort to help only the citizens most in need, and as a result the purchase requirement was eliminated—all stamps were now funded by the state instead of the individuals.
The 1980s brought about more resources for the unhoused population and increased nutrition resources. In the 1990s, things went electric with the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT), to enhance not only the efficiency of the delivery of the funds, but to cut down on “food stamp trafficking” (selling food stamps for cash).
Now the program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a name change meant to put the focus on healthy eating while destigmatizing negative associations with the phrase “food stamps.” Anyone with a SNAP card can use it to buy the following items:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meat, poultry, and fish
- Dairy products
- Breads and cereals
- Other foods such as snack foods
- Non-alcoholic beverages
- Seeds and plants that produce food for the household to eat
Most recently, the Restaurant Meals Program was introduced on a state-by-states basis to allow certain groups who may not be able to prepare themselves a meal the ability to use their SNAP benefits on prepared meals at restaurants. And in that same vein of accessibility comes the ability to use SNAP benefits for online grocery orders, so people can secure food without leaving the house.
According to Grocery Dive, more than 150 retailers have received USDA approval for SNAP online purchasing. On the websites for major brands like Amazon and Walmart you can see which items are SNAP-eligible with designated EBT/SNAP filters. Amazon even offers special discounts and coupons on certain items purchased with an EBT card.
But the USDA doesn’t want this capability limited to major retailers. In July, the department announced applications were open for a $5 million grant to diversify the retailers accepting EBT online, providing more options for people who use SNAP benefits.
“Online grocery shopping is a vital resource that improves access and convenience for all, including low-income families,” Stacy Dean, the USDA’s deputy undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, said in a press release. “We are excited about this grant’s potential to provide new and existing retailers with tools to redeem SNAP benefits in ways that improve customer service for SNAP participants, especially those that face barriers in traveling to a physical store.”
Next, the USDA is hoping to pilot a program allowing SNAP participants to use their phones to purchase groceries at the checkout counter (or through grocery store apps) so that they can take advantage of features like Sam’s Club Scan & Go. The USDA seems committed to making sure that those with government assistance can grocery shop in all the same ways that non-SNAP users can—a basic consideration that can go a long way for the millions of Americans who rely on the program to survive.