Low-income households in more and more states will soon be able to use food benefit debit cards to shop online for groceries, thanks to a pilot project that the government is expanding due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture has allowed online benefits redemptions in Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York and Oregon as a precursor to making online benefits available nationwide. Since the economy has been essentially shut down while people have been urged to remain in their homes, however, the USDA has added Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, North Carolina, the District of Columbia and West Virginia to the program.
“Enabling people to purchase foods online will go a long way in helping Americans follow [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] social distancing guidelines and help slow the spread of the coronavirus,” said Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.
The benefits, which average about $235 per month per household, typically can only be used for food items in grocery stores. For online orders, any delivery fees have to be paid separately. The only retailers approved for use in each state are Amazon and Walmart, while Wrights Market is participating in Alabama and ShopRite is in New York.
It’s a potentially big change. Decades ago, the government distributed benefits as booklets of stamps that had to be taken out in a cumbersome process at the cash register. (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is still widely known as “food stamps.”) But since the mid-2000s, states have distributed benefits on electronic benefit transfer cards.
Expanding online delivery is one of several changes USDA has made to its food programs. Other changes include handing out school lunches at schools that are closed, as well as replacing and suspending work requirements for unemployed adults receiving SNAP benefits.
Roughly 18 million households received benefits at the beginning of the year, but enrollment is likely to surge as incomes shrink with schools and businesses closed. Democrats have demanded a 15% increase in monthly SNAP benefits in the next coronavirus relief package Congress considers.
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