RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — For the first time on Friday, the 750,000 Virginians currently on SNAP can buy food online for delivery.
The program allows SNAP recipients to order from Amazon and Walmart, though they cannot use their benefits to cover the cost of delivery.
Eddie Oliver, the executive director for the Federation of Virginia Food Banks, said the option is long overdue.
“It’s really something that should’ve been in place a while ago. Folks in the anti-hunger community have been advocating for this because it’s part of a larger access issue,” Oliver said. “There’s no reason that low-income families shouldn’t be able to get groceries the same way anyone else does.”
Oliver said the online purchasing pilot is the latest step in a long evolution for SNAP, following the transition from stigmatized food stamps to a card system.
That evolution took on more urgency because of the coronavirus pandemic, according to Toni Blue Washington.
Blue Washington, the Virginia Department of Social Services Division of Benefits Director, said that the 2014 Farm Bill paved the way for the online purchasing pilot program. Before the pandemic, she said the U.S. Department of Agriculture had only approved a handful of states for it.
“So here comes COVID and it’s like–woah–we need to do something now,” Blue Washington said.
In an effort to keep vulnerable populations out of grocery stores, Blue Washington said the federal government decided to fast track approval for additional states. She said Virginia applied in late March and–after getting the green light–DSS got the program online at a speed that’s “unheard of.”
Blue Washington said the state is pushing the federal government to approve more vendors in addition to Amazon and Walmart.
“We don’t have the power to approve but we do have the power to influence so we are at the table,” she said.
Lisa Coles from Goochland, Virginia relies on her local food bank and SNAP benefits to feed her five kids. She said she’d like to see Sam’s Club offer the service, where she feels she can get more for her money.
Coles has diabetes and high-blood pressure–conditions that make going to the grocery store right now risky.
“It’s scary. So going online is the best way to get your items,” Coles said.
Despite that fear, Coles said delivery fees could prevent her from regularly using the online purchasing option.
“That will block me from really using it because sometimes those delivery fees can be really high,” Coles said. “You could take that extra money and use it for something else.”
Blue Washington said she is concerned that these fees will make delivery inaccessible for the most vulnerable, though certain vendors offer it for free for large purchases.
“In order to get it stood up quickly that’s something that we had to forgo but it’s on our list of concerns,” she said. “I just had a conversation literally yesterday about ideas for facilitating change in that area.”
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