Online grocery shopping has been an option for many busy American families for years. But for the 44 million Americans who use benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to supplement their food budget, this option has not been available…yet.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is in the process of bringing online purchasing to those who use SNAP benefits. Online purchasing could improve access to healthy food for those living in food deserts—areas with sparse options to buy healthy groceries—or for those who are unable to physically shop on their own due to a disability or transportation barrier.
The Agricultural Act of 2014, also known as the Farm Bill, took steps to pave the way for SNAP participants to be able to use their benefits online. As a first step, the law required USDA to conduct demonstration projects to test the feasibility of online transactions and, based on the results, make a decision as to whether or not to allow online purchases nationwide. Since the passage of the Farm Bill, FNS has been laying the groundwork to put together the complex technical infrastructure required for these demonstrations.
Because USDA is committed to maintaining the security of SNAP benefits for both the protection of SNAP participant accounts and to prevent and detect trafficking, SNAP online purchases must have a higher level of security than most other online purchases. For example, unlike other online electronic financial transactions, SNAP debit transactions require a secure customer-entered PIN. While more companies in the marketplace are developing this technology, there is currently only one company that provides an industry-tested and -approved secure encrypted-PIN solution necessary for online SNAP purchasing. USDA is working with that company to bring online transactions to SNAP.
Another challenge to establishing SNAP online purchases is that any online purchase system must be able to work with the individual state systems for processing SNAP EBT payment transactions. For EBT online transactions to occur, the processor for the state where the transaction takes place needs to make specific adjustments to their system, which takes time and resources to facilitate. Currently several states are in the process of re-competing their EBT contracts for these systems as a result of the departure of one of the primary processors from the market. Ensuring successful transitions from one processor to another so that all SNAP households have basic access to their benefits is critical and will take time, presenting an additional challenge to establishing online SNAP EBT purchases. Even so, USDA is encouraging the processors to make online purchasing upgrades a priority and is providing support to make these transitions.
USDA is moving forward with all the relevant parties to overcome these challenges and bring online transactions to SNAP. This fall, USDA plans to release a request for volunteer retailers who are interested in participating in the online purchasing demonstration projects. Our goal is to select a small number of retailers before the end of this calendar year. Once selected, these retailers will begin their own system development to handle a number of SNAP specific tasks in the online world. These include separating SNAP eligible and ineligible items, allowing transactions that use both cash and SNAP as a form of payment, not charging sales tax on SNAP items, properly charging (or not charging) bottle deposits, coupons and delivery fees, among other issues.
Online purchasing is only one of many changes we have made to SNAP in the last several years to strengthen the program and increase access to healthful foods for our clients, including providing funding to incentivize participants in SNAP to purchase more healthy fruits and vegetables through the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program, increasing farmers’ market participation in SNAP to improve access to fresh and nutritious food, and proposing updated SNAP retailers standards to include different varieties of healthy qualifying foods. We’re also working to help SNAP participants gain the skills they need to improve their employment situation and move off the program the right way through SNAP Employment and Training (E&T) programs that connect low-income job-seekers to jobs that are available in their local economy.
We look forward to continuing to work with our state and EBT processing partners to launch the online purchasing pilot and learn how best to bring this option to SNAP households in an efficient and secure manner.