Shopping online has become a literal lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic for many at-risk individuals.  But for millions of people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) who are currently unable to enter grocery stores, online shopping is not an option for purchasing food. Responding to demands from disability rights advocates, the federal government is now starting to modernize the program.

SNAP (aka food stamps) serves nearly 40 million people nationwide, making it the federal government’s primary anti-hunger program for low-income people, particularly low-income people with disabilities. SNAP benefits are distributed electronically on a monthly basis to recipients via state-issue debit cards, known as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards.

Even prior to the pandemic, SNAP recipients faced severe restrictions on where they could use EBT cards. Many stores do not accept them, and the cards can’t be used to purchase prepared hot food items.

Until recently, the use of EBT cards for online grocery purchases was almost entirely prohibited. In 2014, Congress authorized the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency overseeing SNAP, to launch state-run pilot programs for online SNAP purchases. But it took five years,  until April 2019, for the USDA to actually launch the Online Purchasing Pilot. This program, a collaboration between state SNAP programs and major retailers like Wal-Mart and Amazon, started in New York State and had expanded to five other states by the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

With COVID-19 making it particularly dangerous for some SNAP recipients to visit stores, the USDA has sprung into action. On May 20, 2020, the agency announced that 13 new states would soon be launching pilot programs, bringing the total number of states to 36, along with the District Columbia.  (SNAP funds cannot be used to pay for delivery fees and other associated charges.)

“The disability community includes millions of individuals with underlying or pre-existing conditions who are, and will be, particularly at risk as COVID-19 continues to spread across the country,” the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote in a May 14, 2020, letter urging expanded online grocery options, among other program changes. “These individuals will face high risk of complications and death if exposed to the outbreak and they need to isolate themselves for protection.  This makes access to online ordering of groceries, meals, and needed supplies critical and, for many, a matter of life and death.”

Despite these changes, millions of SNAP recipients still cannot buy food online, either because they live in states without a pilot program or in areas where the selected grocery retailers do not deliver. Two pending legislative proposals could help.  The SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act, introduced in the House, would automatically permit any state to create its own program if it meets certain requirements. A Senate bill, the Food Assistance for Kids and Families During COVID-19 Act of 2020, would expand funding for online grocery delivery options for SNAP beneficiaries.

Congress has also been looking for ways to expand the SNAP program into restaurants. The USDA already has a Restaurant Meal Program that allows certain SNAP recipients, primarily the elderly and people with disabilities, to use EBT cards at selected restaurants. However, this program, despite being around since 1977, is used in only three states. The SNAP COVID–19 Anti-Hunger Restaurant Relief for You Act of 2020, introduced in both chambers of Congress, would extend this program nationwide for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

For more information on the SNAP program, click here to read a primer from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.

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