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After 33 years in Okanogan Coun­ty, Wash., there is nowhere else Lael Dun­can would want to be — con­sid­er­ing the Okanogan Riv­er, which churns with salmon in the fall; the rare mix of for­est and high­land desert; and the jagged peaks of the North Cas­cades Moun­tains, often referred to as the Alps of North Amer­i­ca. Approx­i­mate­ly 250 miles north­east of Seat­tle, the sprawl­ing coun­ty is home to slight­ly more than 40,000 res­i­dents — which, as Dun­can notes with a laugh, works out to about 7 or 8 square miles per per­son. The coun­ty also has a 17% pover­ty rate. 

Pover­ty looks and feels dif­fer­ent in a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty. Much of rur­al Amer­i­ca has no pub­lic trans­porta­tion and res­i­dents may live miles away from basic ser­vices (such as gas sta­tions and gro­cery stores), and the per­va­sive lack of high-speed inter­net often ren­ders tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions irrelevant. 

And yet, accord­ing to Dun­can, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the 56-year-old anti-pover­ty group Okanogan Coun­ty Com­mu­ni­ty Action Coun­cil, pol­i­cy to reduce pover­ty is often writ­ten just for urban areas. 

This has been one of the hors­es I’ve rid­den for a long time, in terms of say­ing, ​Well, that’s a real­ly great idea for you in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., or Seat­tle, but you’re not from around here, are you?’” Dun­can laughs, but then grows seri­ous. ​I get very frus­trat­ed with poli­cies that are designed in an ivory tower.”

One of those ini­tia­tives with seem­ing­ly lit­tle acces­si­bil­i­ty for rur­al Amer­i­cans may be the fledg­ling Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot of the Sup­ple­men­tal Nutri­tion Assis­tance Pro­gram (SNAP, for­mer­ly known as food stamps). The­o­ret­i­cal­ly, online SNAP allows ben­e­fit recip­i­ents to buy gro­ceries on the internet.

The U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture (USDA) has fea­tured the rapid deploy­ment of online SNAP as a core com­po­nent of its Covid-19 response, claim­ing the pro­gram will serve states that are, as a group, ​home to more than 97% of SNAP par­tic­i­pants,” accord­ing to an August email from the USDA’s Food and Nutri­tion Ser­vice (FNS). In Jan­u­ary, online SNAP had two states par­tic­i­pat­ing. Since the start of the pan­dem­ic, it has grown to 46 and the Dis­trict of Columbia. 

Wash­ing­ton — as the sec­ond state in the pro­gram and one of the ear­li­est to feel the impact of Covid-19 — offers a use­ful look at online SNAP’s poten­tial and short­com­ings in rur­al communities. 

An In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion finds that many rur­al res­i­dents say online gro­cery order­ing and deliv­ery is fun­da­men­tal­ly at odds with their cul­tur­al, phys­i­cal and tech­no­log­i­cal real­i­ties. Instead, the pro­gram is almost entire­ly to the ben­e­fit of retail giants — leav­ing out inde­pen­dent gro­cers — and ignores the gaps in rur­al infrastructure.

Leav­ing Inde­pen­dent Stores Behind

The use of SNAP, the nation’s largest food and nutri­tion assis­tance pro­gram, has shot up in the fall­out from the pan­dem­ic. Nation­al­ly, the num­ber of SNAP recip­i­ents has grown to more than 43 mil­lion peo­ple, an increase of 6 mil­lion since March. SNAP recip­i­ents receive a month­ly allowance — deter­mined by a slid­ing scale based on income and fam­i­ly size — which can be spent on food by swip­ing deb­it-like EBT cards (short for ​elec­tron­ic ben­e­fits trans­fer”) at gro­cery stores and oth­er retailers.

SNAP rules and fund­ing are deter­mined by the Farm Bill, debat­ed in Con­gress every five or six years. The 2014 Farm Bill includ­ed a man­date, sought by nutri­tion advo­cates, to ​test the fea­si­bil­i­ty and impli­ca­tions of allow­ing retail food stores to accept SNAP ben­e­fits through online trans­ac­tions.” This leg­is­la­tion marks the begin­ning of the online SNAP program. 

The con­cept of online SNAP is sim­ple: Let poor peo­ple buy gro­ceries online and either pick them up or get them deliv­ered. Dur­ing a pan­dem­ic, the pro­gram could be espe­cial­ly use­ful to lim­it social contact. 

The nation­wide roll­out of the pilot pro­gram was slow, begin­ning with New York in April 2019 and expand­ing to Wash­ing­ton in Jan­u­ary. But this spring, as the coro­n­avirus and cor­re­spond­ing eco­nom­ic col­lapse deep­ened, the list of par­tic­i­pat­ing states grew rapidly. 

Absent from the online pilot, how­ev­er, are the thou­sands of small and inde­pen­dent gro­cers that have been feed­ing low-income rur­al Amer­i­cans for decades. 

Phil Black­burn opened his gro­cery store in 2018 in the 2,500-person town of Okanogan, the seat of Okanogan Coun­ty, Wash., replac­ing the super­mar­ket that closed near­ly a dozen years pri­or. Black­burn refur­bished and reopened the store in a rur­al food desert, defined by the USDA as a low-income, low-access cen­sus tract where one-third of the pop­u­la­tion lives at least 10 miles from a grocery. 

Today, Black­burn owns four gro­cery stores across rur­al Wash­ing­ton, as well as a laun­dro­mat and a Sub­way sand­wich shop. ​It’s inde­pen­dents for the most part that serve rur­al towns,” Black­burn says. 

Pair that with the fact that rur­al com­mu­ni­ties have high­er pro­por­tions of SNAP recip­i­ents than urban or sub­ur­ban areas, and the inter­de­pen­dence between SNAP and rur­al gro­cers becomes clear. Accord­ing to the Food Research and Action Cen­ter (FRAC), rur­al peo­ple are 25% more like­ly than their urban coun­ter­parts to par­tic­i­pate in SNAP. Nation­al­ly, par­tic­i­pa­tion is high­est among house­holds in rur­al coun­ties (16%), com­pared with house­holds in metro coun­ties (13%), based on data from the Cen­sus Bureau’s Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey data from 2011 – 2015. Black­burn esti­mates that 16% of his Okanogan store sales are made with SNAP benefits.

The large nation­al chains don’t want to go into a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty,” says Jan Gee, CEO and pres­i­dent of the Wash­ing­ton Food Indus­try Asso­ci­a­tion (WFIA), which rep­re­sents 87% of the inde­pen­dent gro­cers in the state. She says it’s pri­mar­i­ly inde­pen­dent gro­cers who serve rur­al Washington. 

This pat­tern holds nation­al­ly, accord­ing to the USDA’s Eco­nom­ic Research Ser­vice: ​Stud­ies find that areas with a high share of low-income house­holds, as well as rur­al areas, tend to have more inde­pen­dent food retail­ers; rel­a­tive­ly few chain stores oper­ate in these areas.” 

In her role at WFIA, Gee has worked since March to bring pan­dem­ic infor­ma­tion to gro­cers through week­ly webi­na­rs. She’s also a loud voice advo­cat­ing for inde­pen­dent gro­cers to be able to par­tic­i­pate as retail­ers in online SNAP, which she says has been ​pret­ty much dom­i­nat­ed” by Ama­zon and Walmart.

While eight retail­ers were orig­i­nal­ly approved by the USDA, only five were par­tic­i­pat­ing as of August. Of the 46 states now enrolled, Ama­zon and Wal­mart are the only retail­ers approved by the USDA in all but seven. 

Gee knows of only two WFIA mem­bers who are wad­ing through the appli­ca­tion process with the USDA right now, a process she describes as ​dif­fi­cult and lengthy” with count­less bar­ri­ers. ​It takes a very, very long time with [USDA] to even process the form to get the retail­er into the sys­tem,” Gee says. ​They’ve been used to work­ing with Ama­zon or Walmart.”

Black­burn, who serves as the WFIA board chair, says he looked into the online SNAP appli­ca­tion process and couldn’t believe how com­pli­cat­ed it was. ​I looked at it, and I go, you know, we’re not gonna do that,” he says. ​I mean, they’ve just got too many barriers.”

In order to be approved for the online pilot, Black­burn esti­mates a cost of sev­er­al thou­sand dol­lars per store. It requires a new tech set­up and a new con­tract with yet anoth­er pri­vate ven­dor, Fis­erv, a finan­cial ser­vices cor­po­ra­tion with a monop­oly on the online pro­cess­ing of SNAP ben­e­fit cards. While many rur­al gro­cers have seen an increase in sales dur­ing the pan­dem­ic, the past six months have required sig­nif­i­cant spend­ing on man­dat­ed masks, cart wipes and sneeze guards. To add anoth­er cost would be tough. 

USDA’s FNS ​sup­ports the expan­sion of the SNAP Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot and is work­ing with all retail­ers inter­est­ed in par­tic­i­pat­ing,” accord­ing to a USDA spokesperson. 

Imple­ment­ing online pur­chas­ing in SNAP requires col­lab­o­ra­tion between state agen­cies, their third-par­ty proces­sors and retail­ers that wish to par­tic­i­pate,” an FNS rep­re­sen­ta­tive explained to In These Times via email. ​FNS pro­vides sig­nif­i­cant tech­ni­cal assis­tance and cus­tomer ser­vice to all of these stake­hold­ers based on their spe­cif­ic needs to sup­port suc­cess­ful imple­men­ta­tion. Retail­er par­tic­i­pa­tion in the SNAP online pur­chas­ing pilot is a busi­ness deci­sion made by inter­est­ed retailers.” 

In response to ques­tions from In These Times, FNS said it does not track the indi­vid­ual bud­getary impact of the Online Pur­chas­ing Pilot.

In the case of online SNAP, the USDA’s deci­sion to con­tract almost exclu­sive­ly with Ama­zon and Wal­mart is a clear exam­ple of gov­ern­ment pol­i­cy tilt­ing the play­ing field, says Sta­cy Mitchell, co-direc­tor of the Insti­tute for Local Self-Reliance (ILSR), a nation­al research and advo­ca­cy orga­ni­za­tion that sup­ports local economies and cor­po­rate accountability. 

This is among a whole bunch of ways in which [the] gov­ern­ment has anoint­ed Wal­mart and Ama­zon as win­ners, to the detri­ment of small­er com­pet­ing busi­ness­es,” Mitchell says. ​We’ve just seen incred­i­ble con­sol­i­da­tion in the retail part of the food sys­tem. And I think it actu­al­ly gets over­looked even by peo­ple who work on food sys­tem issues.” 

While much of the crit­i­cism of food monop­o­lies have focused on proces­sors, the retail­ers ​are actu­al­ly more of the dri­ving force,” Mitchell adds. 

In a 2019 ILSR report, Mitchell doc­u­ment­ed Walmart’s immense gro­cery mar­ket share, hav­ing cap­tured more than 50% of gro­cery sales in 43 met­ro­pol­i­tan areas and 160 small­er mar­kets. In 38 regions, Walmart’s share of the gro­cery mar­ket is 70% or more. ​Walmart’s near-total mar­ket con­trol gives it extra­or­di­nary pow­er to decide which foods and brands are avail­able local­ly and thus to shape what peo­ple buy and eat,” accord­ing to the report. 

Wal­mart con­trols the largest share (30%) of the online gro­cery mar­ket, and Ama­zon fol­lows close­ly behind with 27.1%, accord­ing to an August study from TABS Analytics.

Cor­po­rate con­sol­i­da­tion through the food chain has result­ed in farm­ers and food pro­duc­ers get­ting less of the con­sumer food dol­lar, while cus­tomers are pay­ing more, accord­ing to ILSR. At the same time, Mitchell says, ​a small num­ber of dom­i­nant com­pa­nies in the mid­dle [are] walk­ing off with a big­ger and big­ger chunk of that dollar.”

To try and com­bat such dom­i­nance, Jan Gee has brought the voice of inde­pen­dents to nation­al USDA calls, as well as to statewide meet­ings host­ed by Babs Roberts, direc­tor of the Com­mu­ni­ty Ser­vices Divi­sion for Washington’s Depart­ment of Social and Health Ser­vices (DSHS), the agency that admin­is­ters SNAP in the state.

This spring, as the coro­n­avirus pan­dem­ic began to take hold around the coun­try, Roberts watched the appli­ca­tion num­bers climb: In the first week in April alone, Roberts says her office saw 17,000 new SNAP applications. 

For con­text,” Roberts says, ​that’s dou­ble the high­est month we saw dur­ing the Great Recession.” 

Roberts says she under­stands inde­pen­dent gro­cers want to be includ­ed in online SNAP. ​I think that their pri­ma­ry con­cern is that, if [the pan­dem­ic] lasts longer and online shop­ping is the way that peo­ple are going to end up using their ben­e­fits, they need a piece of that action,” Roberts says. ​They need to be able to par­tic­i­pate in that process.”

Roberts also says her hands are tied. ​The state does­n’t have the author­i­ty to add retail­ers to the pilot… as much as we might want to. And we haven’t heard any­thing yet that would indi­cate USDA is open­ing it up to more retailers.”

Hur­dles to Rur­al Gro­cery Delivery

Even if online SNAP were avail­able to more rur­al gro­cers, it may not be the best way to reach rur­al individuals. 

Before online SNAP was wide­ly avail­able, orders and deliv­er­ies were rarely avail­able in rur­al food deserts, accord­ing to a paper pub­lished in Decem­ber 2019 by the Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Asso­ci­a­tion. Dr. Eric Brandt, now a clin­i­cal lec­tur­er for the divi­sion of car­dio­vas­cu­lar med­i­cine at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Michi­gan Med­ical School, found that, of 59 cen­sus tracts in eight of the pilot states (includ­ing Wash­ing­ton), ​no cen­sus tracts were ful­ly deliv­er­able, 18 cen­sus tracts (30.5%) were par­tial­ly deliv­er­able, and 41 cen­sus tracts (69.5%) were not deliv­er­able.” Notably, Ama­zon and Walmart’s gro­cery ser­vices do not deliv­er to all ZIP codes. 

I was wor­ried that [online SNAP] isn’t a cure-all, par­tic­u­lar­ly because I imag­ine that rur­al Amer­i­ca does not have a lot of gro­cery deliv­ery net­works,” Brandt tells In These Times.

While Brandt is a vocal sup­port­er of online SNAP, he wor­ries that, with­out address­ing deliv­ery gaps, rur­al-urban health dis­par­i­ties could increase. As the pro­gram expands, Brandt says, ​We should think about how we can adapt [online SNAP] to serve every­body, if pos­si­ble, par­tic­u­lar­ly the vul­ner­a­ble, which in this case are those in more rur­al areas.”

More gen­er­al­ly, online sales sys­tems are not pop­u­lar among rur­al gro­cers. When David Proc­ter, the for­mer direc­tor of Kansas State University’s Rur­al Gro­cery Ini­tia­tive, sur­veyed his net­work of gro­cers about the pan­dem­ic, he asked whether they had imple­ment­ed remote order­ing and whether they had an online plat­form they were using. ​Most of them say no: that what they’re doing is that they’re tak­ing phone calls, you know, or they do it via Face­book,” Proc­ter says, rather than a for­mal­ized order­ing process.

Black­burn imple­ment­ed an online mar­ket­place for his stores two or three years ago, based on pre­dic­tions that online shop­ping would take off in pop­u­lar­i­ty. ​It’s quite an ordeal,” Black­burn says. Now, online orders account for only about 1.5% of his sales. 

Oth­er bar­ri­ers to online gro­cery retail include out­dat­ed point-of-sale sys­tems and lack of broad­band inter­net in many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties. For many rur­al com­mu­ni­ties, online shop­ping is sim­ply not possible.

As the inter­im direc­tor of Room One, a health and social ser­vices non­prof­it based in Twisp, Wash., 200 miles from Seat­tle, Kel­ly Edwards says the need for food, hous­ing and child­care is high­er than ever amid the pan­dem­ic downturn.

A fiber inter­net line runs the nine miles between the towns of Twisp and Winthrop, but it costs an aver­age of near­ly $8,000 per premise to install, plus a month­ly fee to use it. The oth­er option is wire­less broad­band, which depends on the loca­tion and avail­abil­i­ty of cell tow­ers, and forest­ed or moun­tain­ous areas can still have trou­ble reach­ing it. In more remote areas of the val­ley, inter­net access isn’t avail­able at all. 

When the Covid-19 shut­down began in March, Room One staff made the deci­sion to remain open for appoint­ments. Appli­ca­tions for pub­lic goods, such as unem­ploy­ment insur­ance and SNAP, were mov­ing entire­ly online — a logis­ti­cal bar­ri­er for Room One’s many clients who do not have phone, com­put­er or inter­net access. With schools and libraries closed, Room One had the only two pub­lic com­put­ers in the entire Methow Val­ley, a more than 80-mile rur­al stretch home to 6,000 full-time residents. 

Like many of the rur­al Wash­ing­ton res­i­dents In These Times inter­viewed for this sto­ry, Edwards had not heard of online SNAP. While smart­phones may large­ly be ubiq­ui­tous in urban or sub­ur­ban cen­ters, Edwards says, ​We just don’t see that here… folks liv­ing at the pover­ty line and low­er, you just can’t afford a month­ly phone plan. You don’t keep your phone with a data plan going… and you def­i­nite­ly don’t have a com­put­er at home.”

With online SNAP unavail­able in the region, Room One expects to con­tin­ue pro­vid­ing gro­cery cards and cash assis­tance to peo­ple locked out of the ben­e­fits appli­ca­tion process. 

Oth­er Okanogan Coun­ty res­i­dents do have enough inter­net access to use online SNAP, but describe a frus­trat­ing process and say it’s not a good fit in terms of selection. 

Baya Walls lives in the town of Okanogan. Recent­ly, after Wash­ing­ton increased its SNAP allowances, Walls real­ized she could use her EBT card for Ama­zon deliv­ery and Wal­mart curb­side pick­up — but she hasn’t done much gro­cery shop­ping through Ama­zon, as per­ish­able items aren’t avail­able for deliv­ery in her area. Addi­tion­al­ly, she’s found that many of her favorite herbs or shelf-sta­ble ingre­di­ents aren’t eli­gi­ble for online pur­chase. Walls prefers to shop her local gro­cery store and per­son­al­ly select items. 

Walls has, how­ev­er, used her ben­e­fit card for curb­side pick­up at the Omak Wal­mart, which requires a min­i­mum order of $35. While Walls describes her­self as ​some­what com­put­er savvy,” she says Walmart’s iden­ti­ty ver­i­fi­ca­tion process was ​dif­fi­cult” and ​frus­trat­ing,” requir­ing mul­ti­ple dif­fer­ent entries of per­son­al iden­ti­fi­ca­tion numbers. 

Walls also spent hours set­ting up a Wal­mart SNAP account on a smart­phone for a friend who is in her 60s and does not own a car. Tech­nol­o­gy is ​a big bar­ri­er for the old­er gen­er­a­tion, and that gets lost in the shuf­fle,” Walls says, adding that there can also be cul­tur­al beliefs about online shop­ping being less safe. ​I have one oth­er old­er friend, and she does­n’t trust the inter­net,” Walls says. ​She refus­es to do any online shop­ping, because she’s very afraid of fraud.”

While Walls, who is 52 and was forced to retire ear­ly due to med­ical prob­lems, does wor­ry about online secu­ri­ty, she says, ​The fact that I can use my EBT ben­e­fits online is some­thing that makes life a lit­tle eas­i­er for me. Do I wor­ry about the safe­ty of my infor­ma­tion? Yes, I do… but it’s the risk that I’m tak­ing for the sake of convenience.”

Online pri­va­cy and secu­ri­ty researchers have raised sim­i­lar con­cerns, specif­i­cal­ly about online SNAP. ​I think there’s enough infor­ma­tion that sug­gests that the dis­trust is war­rant­ed,” says Katha­ri­na Kopp, deputy direc­tor and direc­tor for pol­i­cy at the Cen­ter for Dig­i­tal Democ­ra­cy (CDD).

SNAP has come a long way from the days of paper food stamps, count­ed and exchanged at a cash reg­is­ter. Now, ben­e­fits cards are swiped just like deb­it cards, an expe­ri­ence far less stig­ma­tiz­ing for users. A shift to online SNAP offers even more dis­cre­tion and con­ve­nience — but Kopp and her col­leagues argue there is a cost. 

Peo­ple who need gov­ern­ment food assis­tance should be giv­en access to the same kinds of online ser­vices that oth­ers in our coun­try are using to feed their fam­i­lies with­out hav­ing to increase their risks of becom­ing ill,” accord­ing to the CDD report, ​Does Buy­ing Gro­ceries Online Put SNAP Par­tic­i­pants At Risk?”, which Kopp co-authored. ​The SNAP online pur­chas­ing pro­gram could be a vital tool for achiev­ing that goal.” 

But the report cau­tions SNAP recip­i­ents may face ​increased data col­lec­tion and sur­veil­lance, a flood of intru­sive and manip­u­la­tive online mar­ket­ing tech­niques, and per­va­sive pro­mo­tion of unhealthy foods.” 

In an unreg­u­lat­ed dig­i­tal envi­ron­ment, Kopp is con­cerned that Big Data, when deployed by pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions to opti­mize their bot­tom lines, has the effect of actu­al­ly exac­er­bat­ing inequities. ​Peo­ple already at the bot­tom of the eco­nom­ic lad­der, with these data prac­tices, will tend to be clas­si­fied — sort­ed — and are the most like­ly to be exploit­ed and tak­en advan­tage of,” Kopp says.

As part of their research, Kopp and her col­leagues reviewed the pri­va­cy poli­cies and data track­ing prac­tices of the approved online SNAP retail­ers, includ­ing Ama­zon and Wal­mart. They found numer­ous fail­ures to pro­tect SNAP recip­i­ent data, par­tic­u­lar­ly from preda­to­ry adver­tis­ing tac­tics used by retail­ers, and that the USDA ​relied on the flawed and mis­lead­ing pri­va­cy poli­cies of the par­tic­i­pat­ing com­pa­nies.” Ulti­mate­ly, says Kopp, the USDA has ​a respon­si­bil­i­ty to cre­ate a safe envi­ron­ment” before encour­ag­ing peo­ple to go online.

We know that peo­ple care about how their infor­ma­tion is used and shared,” Kristi­na Her­rmann, Amazon’s direc­tor of under­served pop­u­la­tions, writes in an email to In These Times. ​We also know that peo­ple won’t want to do busi­ness with us if they don’t trust us to han­dle their infor­ma­tion care­ful­ly and sen­si­bly. Ama­zon com­plies with applic­a­ble law on cus­tomer data and pri­va­cy notices. We only share cus­tomer infor­ma­tion as described in our pri­va­cy notice.” 

Lack of access and dis­trust of the sys­tem, as well as the rel­a­tive new­ness of the pro­gram, may be con­tribut­ing to online SNAP’s slug­gish user uptake. Babs Roberts, in Wash­ing­ton, says the online SNAP pro­gram took off slow­ly once it became oper­a­tional in Jan­u­ary. By the end of June, only 18,500 Wash­ing­ton SNAP card­hold­ers had used their ben­e­fits online, a small per­cent­age of SNAP recip­i­ents statewide. A coun­ty-by-coun­ty break­down of online SNAP usage is not cur­rent­ly available. 

In part, the low par­tic­i­pa­tion num­bers can cer­tain­ly be attrib­uted to the infan­cy of the pro­gram. But these ear­ly num­bers remain low­er than both Gee and Roberts had antic­i­pat­ed. ​Some of these folks have trans­porta­tion issues,” Gee says. ​And a lot of them are elder­ly, and they don’t want to go to a store right now. It is strange to me that those num­bers did­n’t explode like online pur­chas­ing explod­ed” dur­ing the pandemic.

Nation­al­ly, accord­ing to a USDA spokesper­son, ​close to 35,000 house­holds shopped online using their SNAP ben­e­fits” in March. ​By com­par­i­son, in July 2020, over 940,000 house­holds shopped online using SNAP benefits.” 

Roberts says she antic­i­pates the pro­gram will grow in pop­u­lar­i­ty, giv­en how online shop­ping has increased dur­ing the pan­dem­ic. ​But I don’t think it’s going to get real­ly huge­ly pop­u­lar until we can expand the base of retail­ers,” she says. ​There isn’t a Wal­mart every­where, and Ama­zon isn’t deliv­er­ing fresh pro­duce or per­ish­able items every­where. So there are still some lim­i­ta­tions caus­ing some peo­ple to just go to the gro­cery store.”

Alter­nate Solutions

Dur­ing a pan­dem­ic that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly harms vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties, online SNAP cer­tain­ly has its place. A safe and func­tion­al SNAP pro­gram that pro­vides equi­ty to recip­i­ents, online and in-per­son, is para­mount to feed­ing mil­lions of Amer­i­cans as the econ­o­my is rebuilt.

The role of SNAP as an eco­nom­ic dri­ver is well doc­u­ment­ed. ​It has a mul­ti­pli­er effect on local eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty,” says Aaron Shi­er, senior gov­ern­ment rela­tions rep­re­sen­ta­tive for the Nation­al Farm­ers Union (NFU). ​There’s more than a dol­lar spent for every SNAP dol­lar spent, and that means jobs and increased mar­kets for farm­ers and the food that they sell.”

Shi­er says NFU is gen­er­al­ly sup­port­ive of online SNAP and believes ​it is a step in the right direc­tion with con­sumers increas­ing­ly opt­ing to shop for their gro­ceries online.” But as an orga­ni­za­tion rep­re­sent­ing a large­ly rur­al mem­ber­ship, Shi­er adds that there are def­i­nite­ly bar­ri­ers for online SNAP in rur­al communities.

Per­haps more impor­tant than any focus on online SNAP is the need to expand ben­e­fits and fund­ing dur­ing this time that has been so dif­fi­cult for so many Amer­i­cans,” Shi­er says. 

One obvi­ous next step could be for Con­gress to pass the Expand­ing SNAP Options Act, co-spon­sored by Illi­nois Demo­c­ra­t­ic Sens. Tam­my Duck­worth and Dick Durbin. The act would require the USDA to imple­ment online SNAP pur­chas­ing in all states, pro­vide $25 mil­lion to devel­op and main­tain an online redemp­tion por­tal for inde­pen­dent gro­cers and pro­vide $75 mil­lion for the cre­ation of a USDA Tech­ni­cal Assis­tance Cen­ter to facil­i­tate online pur­chas­ing and help small­er retail­ers par­tic­i­pate in the pro­gram. A com­pan­ion House bill was intro­duced by Illi­nois Demo­c­ra­t­ic Reps. Robin Kel­ly, Bob­by Rush and Jesus ​Chuy” Gar­cia, as well as New Jer­sey Rep. Don­ald Payne Jr. and D.C. Del­e­gate Eleanor Holmes Nor­ton as orig­i­nal co-spon­sors. Nei­ther bill has moved forward. 

But with­out major invest­ments in rur­al infra­struc­ture devel­op­ment — such as high-speed inter­net — tech­no­log­i­cal solu­tions to rur­al hunger and pover­ty are like­ly to fall short, as researchers con­tin­ue to link bet­ter job and income per­for­mance to high-speed inter­net access. The oth­er side of invest­ing in high-speed inter­net is mak­ing sure it’s safe to use by pass­ing fed­er­al pri­va­cy legislation. 

While fix­ing the gaps in online SNAP is a giv­en, advo­cates also point to the impor­tance of increas­ing SNAP ben­e­fits overall. 

SNAP is a tremen­dous tool, and [SNAP] cards are life-sav­ing for peo­ple,” says Room One’s Kel­ly Edwards. ​We would 100% rather keep the mon­ey in the val­ley with fam­i­ly-owned busi­ness­es and grow­ers,” as opposed to Ama­zon or Wal­mart, where the mon­ey leaves the community. 

While the Food Research and Action Cen­ter (FRAC) sup­ports online SNAP, and helped advo­cate for its cre­ation and inclu­sion in the 2014 Farm Bill, ​the big­gies on our list are mak­ing sure peo­ple have the ade­quate resources for them­selves, but also so that the econ­o­my gets the boost that it needs,” says FRAC’s Ellen Vollinger. 

And, this isn’t rock­et sci­ence either, but the rea­son there’s hunger is the eco­nom­ic dif­fi­cul­ties,” Vollinger adds. ​It’s not [that we’re lack­ing] suf­fi­cient food in the coun­try. It’s that peo­ple don’t have good eco­nom­ic circumstances.”

SNAP advo­cates, includ­ing FRAC and the Nation­al Farm­ers Union, have called for anoth­er round of pan­dem­ic stim­u­lus with a 15% increase to SNAP fund­ing and an increase in min­i­mum month­ly ben­e­fits, sought by House Democ­rats in the HEROES Act passed in May. 

Although an expan­sion of SNAP ben­e­fits makes eco­nom­ic sense, it is like­ly to face sig­nif­i­cant polit­i­cal bar­ri­ers. When the 2018 Farm Bill was being nego­ti­at­ed, Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and the House Repub­li­can Free­dom Cau­cus delayed the bill for months, attempt­ing to enact deep SNAP cuts. Sec­re­tary of Agri­cul­ture Son­ny Per­due, Vice Pres­i­dent Mike Pence and then-House Speak­er Paul Ryan (R‑Wis.) all cam­paigned on SNAP cuts and new work require­ments for the program’s recipients. 

Though Trump and con­gres­sion­al Repub­li­cans ulti­mate­ly relent­ed and passed the Farm Bill, in Decem­ber 2019 Trump signed an exec­u­tive order reim­pos­ing work require­ments on SNAP recip­i­ents between the ages of 18 and 49 who are child­less and not dis­abled. These ​able-bod­ied adults” were already required to work at least 20 hours a week to qual­i­fy for SNAP ben­e­fits, but states had pre­vi­ous­ly been able to offer excep­tions for recip­i­ents in areas with high unem­ploy­ment rates. The USDA esti­mat­ed, at the time, that 688,000 peo­ple would lose access to SNAP because of the changes, reduc­ing SNAP spend­ing by $5.5 bil­lion over five years.

Trump’s USDA con­tin­ues to pur­sue these work require­ments even dur­ing the pan­dem­ic and despite judi­cial rul­ings against them — and has large­ly neglect­ed to use oth­er SNAP tools to sup­port the pan­dem­ic response. 

It’s just stun­ning the degree to which USDA has not cre­at­ed more flex­i­bil­i­ty and adapt­ed more tools of the pro­gram,” such as dis­as­ter SNAP, Vollinger says — as pre­vi­ous Repub­li­can pres­i­dents have. Dis­as­ter SNAP is part of the fed­er­al emer­gency response to wild­fires, tor­na­does, floods, hur­ri­canes, mega-storms and oth­er nat­ur­al dis­as­ters. Although the FNS Covid-19 response includes per­mit­ting states to issue emer­gency allot­ments that would increase ben­e­fits for some exist­ing SNAP house­holds, dis­as­ter SNAP would allow fam­i­lies in fed­er­al­ly declared dis­as­ter areas who lose a job, can’t get access to their bank funds, or lose food or hous­ing to receive ben­e­fits when they wouldn’t oth­er­wise be eligible.

What has been frus­trat­ing, gen­er­al­ly, about the admin­is­tra­tion’s approach on SNAP is the degree to which they don’t use all the tools in the tool­box,” Vollinger says.

Sen­ate Repub­li­cans have so far refused sig­nif­i­cant SNAP expan­sion, though an $8 bil­lion one-time increase in nutri­tion sup­port was includ­ed in the con­tin­u­ing bud­get res­o­lu­tion passed in late Sep­tem­ber to avoid an Octo­ber gov­ern­ment shutdown. 

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, while the resilience of rur­al com­mu­ni­ties is appar­ent, more fund­ing and sup­port would cer­tain­ly help alle­vi­ate some of the strain. 

For all the deficits and lack of access that peo­ple will describe a rur­al com­mu­ni­ty by, I feel like the rich­ness and the strength is actu­al­ly the com­mu­ni­ty,” Edwards says. ​Because we’re used to not hav­ing state or coun­ty or oth­er sup­port com­ing in, and so we have to take care of each oth­er… we’ve come to rely on ourselves.” 

This arti­cle was sup­port­ed by a grant from the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Report­ing and the Eco­nom­ic Hard­ship Report­ing Project. Fact-check­­ing was pro­vid­ed by Mad­die Cruz. 


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