- The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) is looking for retailer volunteers to participate in a two-year, nationwide pilot allowing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants, who use food stamps for purchases, to buy their groceries online.
- The USDA plans to select up to five retailers in three states to participate in the pilot program, which is likely to begin next summer. The USDA is currently testing technical and security components.
- The USDA says it has been working on the infrastructure required for the pilot since the passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, which mandated support for online transaction capabilities for SNAP users.
This push toward a pilot test represents some positive forward movement on the task of modernizing food stamp transactions. However, it has taken an awfully long time to get to this point, considering the mandate was made two years ago.
A federal program supporting 45 million people shouldn't make them wait until 2017 (or later — a CNN Money report suggested the program would be evaluated, possibly after two years, before it expands) to be able to buy groceries online when other people in this country are at the stage of being able to buy them on smartphones and have them delivered to a football stadium parking lot. We all want it to work right and to be secure, but enabling secure online transactions is not exactly a new science anymore.
In any case, many parties have been pushing for online SNAP acceptance for a while, and it sounds like some retailers, including food startups Thrive Market and Blue Apron, are ready for the change. Thrive Market has collected 310,000 signatures on a petition asking the USDA to let people use food stamps online.
The move toward an online pilot comes as the USDA is making other changes to improve the SNAP program, such as enforcing new rules requiring grocers and retailers to include a wider variety of food and products with higher nutritional value through the program. Some stores accepting the stamps don't like those changes very much, but they should find it hard to argue with the enablement of online transactions for SNAP, which should increase their web traffic and overall sales. But, like SNAP users, they will have to wait a while longer to reap the benefits.