Food-stamp purchases could soon go online under SNAP pilot program

The Agriculture Department added Arizona to the list of states where people can use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits – SNAP, or food stamps – to buy their groceries online. (Photo courtesy U.S. Department of Agriculture)

PHOENIX – Arizona food-stamp recipients may soon be able to buy their groceries online, after the federal government’s swift approval this week of the state’s request in the face of coronavirus-related stay-at-home orders.

Wednesday’s announcement by the U.S. Department of Agriculture came less than a week after Arizona asked to be part of a pilot program that lets recipients use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to buy from approved online retailers like Amazon and Walmart.

State officials welcomed the move that they said will help limit social interactions while ensuring food assistance for the state’s most vulnerable. One advocate agreed, but added that “it’s unfortunate that it took a pandemic to make it happen.”

“We’re very grateful that this change is occurring and this pilot program is in place,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Wildfire AZ. “Fundamentally, we think everybody ought to have the same opportunities when they’re shopping and should be able to decide how and when to spend their money. Everybody should have the same access – is our bottom line.”

Online ordering is just the latest change to the food stamp program as a result of the isolation and job loss driven by COVID-19. The USDA also approved a two-month extension of SNAP benefits, included some hot and prepared food meals in the list of goods recipients can buy and temporarily waives the requirement that able-bodied adults without dependents look for work while getting food stamps.

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“Many Arizonans who have never asked anything from the government suddenly find themselves in a time of need – and we are going to be there for them,” said Gov. Doug Ducey in a prepared statement welcoming online SNAP shopping. “These changes help ensure food assistance is available and easy to access.”

The changes also come at a time of soaring unemployment and a related spike in demand for food assistance.

The USDA said that 776,402 Arizonans, from about 400,000 households, got SNAP benefits in December. But applications for SNAP in Arizona have jumped 40% since mid-March, said Ashley St. Thomas, public policy manager for the Association of Arizona Food Banks.

St. Mary’s Food Bank is seeing twice as many clients as usual and has added mobile pantries in addition to its permanent facilities to try to keep up, said food bank spokesman Jerry Brown.

“We’re being stretched as far as we can be stretched, so any help that will ease that burden and give people another access to food is helpful,” Brown said.

With facilities in nine of Arizona’s 15 counties, it’s impossible for St. Mary’s to deliver to individual homes, which is one reason Brown welcomed the new online program.

“Any program that allows them to deliver food to homes and allow people to stay where they should be, which is at home right now, is good,” Brown said.

That was echoed by St. Thomas.

“Helping Arizonans at risk of hunger use SNAP for online food purchases minimizes their exposure to COVID-19 and allows much-needed flexibility in food access,” St. Thomas said. “This online access to groceries will go a long way for a lot of people.”

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Arizona and California were added this week to six states already piloting the SNAP online program. An Arizona Department of Economic Security official said the program should begin next month in the state, once testing is finished.

DES Director Tom Betlach said in the statement with Ducey that these changes “expand options for Arizonans” while they work on limiting time away from home.

Food Tank President Danielle Nierenberg said allowing SNAP recipients to buy healthy food online could outlast the COVID-19 emergency.

“So many folks who are food-insecure have multiple jobs and lack transportation,” Nierenberg said in an email. “Anything that makes it more simple for them to access food will be a benefit, especially for the elderly.”

Zwick said the USDA should make the online program standard, rather than making states apply for the benefit, especially since Walmart and Amazon are accessible nationwide.

“It’s been tested, we know it works, so let’s just make it available in every state,” Zwick said.

And she said to Arizonans who have lost jobs during COVID-19, “don’t hesitate” to apply for SNAP benefits.

“That’s what these programs are for – they’re there to provide support when there is a crisis,” she said. “Don’t hesitate. If you’re not eligible today, check back.”

Jessica Myers

Sustainability Reporter, Washington, D.C.

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