The National Grocers Association (NGA) is working with lawmakers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) to bring more independent grocers into the mix for the agency’s SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot.
Under the pilot, launched in 2019, recipients of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can shop and pay for groceries online from authorized retailers using their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards. The online purchasing program, managed by FNS, is now live in 44 states and the District of Columbia. Arkansas and Hawaii have been approved to implement the service but haven’t yet gone live.
NGA last week hosted a virtual meeting with FNS Administrator Pam Miller and about 25 independent grocers and e-commerce technology partners to discuss application and testing hurdles for small retailers looking to participate in the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot.
So far, only Amazon and Walmart are authorized as SNAP online retailers in all states. Wakefern Food Corp.’s ShopRite banner is working with Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, while the retail grocery cooperative’s The Fresh Grocer banner is working with New Jersey and Pennsylvania.
Wright’s Market in Alabama is currently the only stand-alone independent supermarket authorized for SNAP online purchasing. NGA said dozens of other independent grocers are interested in offering the service, and many have applied to FNS to participate. However, none have launched SNAP online purchasing because of “burdensome requirements,” including technical challenges, the need to test at each store location, financial resources for implementing and running the program, and a lengthy application and approval process, the association said.
Jimmy Wright (left), owner of Opelika, Ala.-based Wright’s Market, outlined some of the issues faced by independent food retailers in the NGA virtual meeting.
“A challenge for many small towns and rural areas is that they do not have the population density to support a profitable, full-service, brick-and-mortar grocery store, and in turn those communities become food deserts,” Wright explained. “Our mission in our business is nourishing families and strengthening communities, and SNAP online purchasing can help us bring that mission to fruition by making it easier to serve folks most in need, whether or not they can physically come to the store.”
Also in the online meeting, Brian Moyer, CEO of Freshop, said the Rochester, N.Y.-based grocery and retail e-commerce provider aims to bring more independent supermarkets into the SNAP online purchasing program. Freshop helped Wright’s Market develop the service for the pilot. Wright’s already offered online grocery delivery and pickup via its Wright 2 U service.
“Freshop is proud to offer full integration of SNAP on its platform in select states across the U.S., giving millions of Americans the ability to feel safe while providing the necessary nutrition for their families,” Moyer said.
To help level the playing field for independents interested in SNAP online purchasing, USDA’s FNS needs to offer more options for third-party payment providers, ease onboarding costs for retailers, and speed up the approval and implementation process for grocers, NGA said. The association added that FNS may require more funding and resources from Congress to administer SNAP online purchasing capabilities.
“Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, grocers have been working diligently to serve their customers and feed their communities in the most efficient and effective ways possible. Independent grocers play an important role in feeding America’s rural communities and helping to eradicate food deserts,” stated Molly Pfaffenroth, director of government relations for NGA. “As consumer behavior and expectation shifts to online offerings, it is incredibly important that independent grocers have the opportunity to offer SNAP online purchasing so they can continue to best serve their customers according to their needs and help fight food insecurity during this critical time.”
Despite the pilot’s national reach, SNAP recipients still have few store options for using the benefits online, NGA noted. In July, the association endorsed the Expanding SNAP Options Act (S. 4202, H.R. 7535), which would make it easier for independent grocers to participate in the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot. Introduced by U.S. Sens. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) and Tammy Duckworth (D., Ill.) and U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly (D., Ill.), the bill would make it more technically and financially feasible for independents to implement online transactions for SNAP beneficiaries.
The coronavirus pandemic has underscored the value of online purchasing for SNAP, NGA added. Before the COVID-19 outbreak, the program was only accessible through four retailers. But since the crisis was declared a national emergency in March, FNS has ramped up retailer participation across to 46 states and Washington, D.C.