Millions of Americans who receive SNAP benefits could soon order groceries online – possibly making food deserts a thing of the past.
Under a USDA pilot program, SNAP participants in New York state can use their benefits to purchase food items from Amazon, Walmart, and ShopRite.
“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,” Secretary Perdue said in a press release. “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.”
Eliminating food deserts and expanding food access, especially to low-income residents, is certainly a positive thing. But will online SNAP benefits – and online grocery shopping in general – solve hunger in America, make people healthier in the long run, and reduce the environmental impact of food production and transportation?
Nevin Cohen, an associate professor at the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Public Health and the Research Director at the CUNY Urban Food Policy Institute, is asking these questions. In a recent Civil Eats article, Dr. Cohen outlines the ways an online SNAP program can both help and hurt Americans’ health and the environment.
For example, ordering groceries online encourages purchasing processed foods, rather than perishable items, and bulk supplies like cases of soda.
And, while grocery shopping from home increases convenience for the elderly and people with mobility challenges, it could decrease movement and social interaction, and increase feelings of isolation.
Shopping online can affect local economies, too. Online SNAP purchases will direct that money to places other than local groceries or food markets, furthering the lack of access to local foods. Shipping and food delivery methods could increase traffic, fossil fuel consumption, carbon emissions, and associated environmental health issues.
If the online SNAP pilot is successful over the next 2 years, the USDA plans to expand the program to the nearly 40 million SNAP recipients nationwide.