Amazon, the e-tailing giant, has been making a lot of noise on the groceries front. Between their acquisition of Whole Foods, their Amazon Fresh delivery service, and their new Amazon Go no-checkout store, they’re bringing a lot of disruption to the grocery industry. In the midst of it all, a meme started circulating on social media noting that Amazon, headed up by the richest person in the world, has some employees who receive SNAP even though – wait for it – Amazon doesn’t accept SNAP for groceries. There are a couple of things wrong with that particular meme (for example, the math they used to come up with the estimated number of employees receiving SNAP is a little suspect), but it does raise some interesting points about Amazon delivery and food accessibility. An article at CityLab noted that:

Other critics have voiced other concerns about the prospect of robotic convenience stores: Amazon Go doesn’t accept food stamps, as Slate reported, and requiring all patrons to download a smartphone app linked to a credit card amounts to another kind of barrier erected against low-income shoppers.

The Amazon Go store – soon to be replicated nearby and in other cities – is, like Amazon’s acquisition of Whole Foods, an experiment in bringing Amazon’s huge online reach to the street level, and like that acquisition, it targets a particular demographic. That target market is largely young, healthy, concerned about the environment and social issues, and better off financially than the average SNAP participant. The barriers to using SNAP at an Amazon Go service are as much pragmatic as they are idealistic. The storefronts are built on the use of an app linked to a credit card or bank account, and can’t – yet, at least – use SNAP benefits.

USDA to Experiment with Amazon Delivery for SNAP Recipients

However, as Amazon looks to expand its online market to Main Street, it is also doing another kind of outreach – expanding its online grocery reach to those with lower incomes. For starters, it is now offering a discounted rate for Amazon Prime – which offers free 2-day delivery for many purchases – to customers who use EBT or Medicaid.

This is NOT an ad! It is, however, a current screenshot from Amazon.com.

In addition, Amazon is one of several companies that will be participating in a pilot program allowing certain retailers to accept SNAP for qualifying online purchases. According to a USDA press release issued in January, starting this summer, Amazon customers in New York, New Jersey, and Maryland will be able to pay for food purchases using their EBT cards and SNAP benefits. If the experiment is successful – and continues to be funded – it will be expanded to include other markets. Amazon is one of seven food retailers that have volunteered and been accepted for the pilot program. The others include regional chains, small local grocery chains, and two national chains, ShopRite and Safeway. Like Amazon, the national chains will be testing the waters in just a few states.

This new pilot program is part of an ongoing effort by the USDA to make food – particularly healthy food – more widely available to SNAP recipients, and to expand the variety of food available to families who rely on SNAP. It stands in stark opposition to the Trump administration’s proposal to replace some SNAP benefits with a box of commodities, while being far closer in spirit and actual result to the administration’s marketing spin of a “meal delivery service.”

Pros and Cons of Amazon Delivery for SNAP Users

It would be easy to roll your eyes at the USDA’s pilot program to make it easier for SNAP recipients to purchase foods through online services like Amazon. Amazon Prime and other online grocery services are still seen as a service for the well-off, and many make the assumption that ordering groceries online is more expensive than shopping in store. Many would argue against the program as another way to help SNAP recipients abuse the system by paying higher prices for “luxury” foods. They would argue that “convenience” shouldn’t be a consideration for families on SNAP, that “beggars can’t be choosers,” and all the other mean-spirited comments that many involved in food justice work have heard for years. These are the same people who will blithely tell a struggling working mom that they easily survive on $2 a meal by buying in bulk, cutting up their own meat, and cooking dried beans and rice from scratch. These comments ignore the reality that many families who rely on SNAP are headed by a working adult, with all the time constraints that go along with with being employed. It’s worth noting that even well-meaning SNAP education programs fall into the same trap when teaching people how to budget and shop responsibly – most working parents don’t have the time (or energy) to run around to five supermarkets to shop the best deals, or to shop three or four times a week to avoid wasting food.

When you remove the element of judgment – what poor people “deserve” – from the equation, being able to buy groceries online and have them delivered directly to your home starts to make a lot more sense. These are some of the pros of using Amazon delivery for purchasing groceries online:

  • It expands food choices for people who have limited access to grocery stores in their communities.
  • People without cars will find it easier to shop online than to get to grocery stores and supermarkets outside walking distance.
  • Many lower income people without cars rely on cabs to do a full week’s grocery shopping (or, often, buy once a month to reduce their transportation cost). Amazon’s Discounted Prime service, at $5.99 a month, costs less than cab fare (or gas money to a friend) for a one-way trip to the supermarket – and covers the delivery charges for all purchases more than $25.
  • Prime Pantry offers low delivery prices based on the size of the “box” you fill. Those delivery prices will not be covered by SNAP, but may be covered by cash EBT benefits.
  • For families without access to a vehicle, or who live far from supermarkets, a grocery shopping trip can tie up most of the day. Someone who is working often doesn’t have the time to do regular grocery shopping. Instead, they end up buying from nearby convenience stores where they pay far more and have more limited choices. Ordering groceries online takes a fraction of the time, freeing time up for family, or even for cooking healthier meals.

As with anything, there are some cons associated with Amazon accepting SNAP for online purchases. Currently, for example, their ability to offer fresh produce is limited to areas where they offer Amazon Fresh in partnership with local food retailers. That particular issue may resolve itself as Amazon expands its Amazon Fresh partnerships. Another possible issue is that allowing SNAP recipients to purchase groceries from Amazon or other online retailers may divert SNAP money that could be spent with local farmers, grocery stores, and farmers markets.

There is one other benefit of the SNAP online ordering pilot – if it’s successful, not only will it expand to include other areas, it will likely expand to include other retailers. Here in Worcester, InstaCart currently delivers grocery orders from all the major grocery chains, with the exception of Stop & Shop, which has its own Peapod delivery service. None of them, however, can accept SNAP via their online portals. If you shop with SNAP, you can’t use the service. If the SNAP experiment is successful, it’s likely that at least some of them will get in line to accept SNAP payments online. To sweeten that benefit, nearly all of these supermarkets have committed to purchasing much of their fresh food from local producers.

There’s a lot to be said for going out to the grocery store or farmers market to pick out your own food, but giving working families and households another choice – and expanding their access and choice of foods – is a step in the right direction.

 

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