Some food stamp recipients can now buy food online at Amazon, Walmart

Whether you’ve experienced it for yourself or not, actually getting food with food stamps has traditionally been a giant pain in the behind. The government has always had a spider’s web of regulations around the program anyway, and beneficiaries were long required to use electronics benefit transfer, or EBT, to pay for their purchases at the actual time and date of sale at the retailer of their choice.

Surprisingly, the U.S. Government is piloting a program that would make it a lot easier for those on SNAP or order food online and have it delivered. This month, Amazon, Walmart and Snaprite kicked off a two-year initiative that would allow low-income shoppers on government food assistance to shop and pay for their groceries online for the first time.

It’s by no means a comprehensive solution to the problems faced by the elderly, the disabled, and the working poor who take advantage of SNAP’s benefits, but it’s a start. The program looks to be rolling out in the New York City metropolitan area, while Walmart is testing out things in upstate New York.

The USDA, which is responsible for the SNAP program, says the pilot will eventually expand to other states including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington.

“People who receive SNAP benefits should have the opportunity to shop for food the same way more and more Americans shop for food — by ordering and paying for groceries online,” said USDA Secretary Sonny Perdue. “As technology advances, it is important for SNAP to advance too, so we can ensure the same shopping options are available for both non-SNAP and SNAP recipients.”

While it’s a major step in the right direction to help the needy order food deliveries online, there are still a few catches. While SNAP will pony up the cash for online goods, beneficiaries will not be able to use SNAP funds to pay for service or delivery charges. This could prove a major barrier to beneficiaries adopting the new service — if you have SNAP benefits but can’t afford to pay for the delivery charges, you’re kind of screwed.

You can add to those hurdles the fact that SNAP shoppers will have to pony up a minimum amount of buying to qualify for free shipping, like Amazon Prime members enjoy. While Amazon says that SNAP recipients won’t have to be Prime members to buy groceries with their benefits and will get free access to the company’s AmazonFresh delivery service, they’ll need to spend at least $50 at AmazonFresh and at least $25 at Amazon.com.

SNAP recipients total nearly 40 million people in the United States, half of which are children. It’s a huge potential market for companies like Amazon and Walmart — SNAP recipients spent over $50 billion last year.

This announcement comes in the wake of proposed changes to the food stamps program. First, the White House budget proposed moving SNAP recipients to a “USDA Foods package.” The package was described as a kind of food kit, consisting of “shelf-stable milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit and vegetables.” The boxes would not include fresh fruits or vegetables. More recently, the administration has floated new rules that could cut as many as a quarter of a million people off of the SNAP program entirely.

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