Grocery delivery services tend to score highly for consumer satisfaction and currently these benefits are also available to recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The maintenance of these benefits depend on this year’s Farm Bill, which provides the opportunity to renew an unexpected partnership linking technological services, social safety nets, and agricultural legislation. By maintaining and possibly expanding the existing program allowing SNAP recipients to use benefits on grocery delivery platforms, lawmakers can increase the efficacy of the program.
The Farm Bill has been a staple in the agriculture policy sphere since its first rendition in 1933. The omnibus legislation includes multiple agricultural policies, such as crop insurance, and has been expanded over the years. The Food Stamp Act of 1964 extended its scope into the social safety net sphere through the allocation of agricultural surpluses to low-income households. The 2008 version of the bill renamed food stamps to the current version of SNAP.
The intent of SNAP is to supplement the food budget of those in need. However, as the definition of food security shows, affordability is only one half of the problem. Food security refers to “having, at all times, both physical and economic access to sufficient food to meet dietary needs for a productive and healthy life.” SNAP addresses economic access but for many, physical access remains allusive. A lack of access to food because of someone’s physical location or lack of access to transportation contributes to the well-studied phenomenon of “food deserts.”
A 2012 report from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) identified over 6,500 food desert census tracts in the U.S., with high poverty tracts being more likely to be food deserts. More recent data sets from 2019 still show significant areas of overlap between income levels and access to food.
Studies have shown that increased food access, in the form of close full-service supermarkets for SNAP participants, not only improves food security but also reduces the intake of calories from solid fats, added sugar and alcohol. The advent of grocery delivery services may be able to help bridge the gap between economic and physical access to food.
The 2014 Farm Bill included an online-purchasing pilot program that enabled eight states to extend SNAP benefits to include online purchasing and grocery delivery services. In these states, delivery services were found to reach more than 90 percent of urban food deserts. Since that time, the program has been extended to every state in the nation, except for Alaska. The program also exists for the District of Columbia. What this means for SNAP recipients is a reduction in both physical and economic barriers to food access. Where the government intervention focuses on cost, the technological adoption of delivery reduced the geographical barrier.
A 2018 study focusing on food-retailing markets in the greater Los Angeles area found that on average, smaller food retailers charge significantly higher prices than supermarkets. In addition, they are more likely to raise prices when there is an absence of serious competition. The implication is that by allowing low-income individuals access to supermarkets via food delivery services, the program can be more efficient by helping funds go further.
While some in Congress are tackling overall government spending and efficiency through efforts like the Limit, Save, Grow Act of 2023, the same goals can be applied to individual programs. Funding for SNAP has fluctuated over the years and the exact funding amount serves as a point of contention across party lines. However, efforts to improve government programs through efficiency should be bipartisan. Renewing the program that allows for SNAP recipients to order from delivery services and even expanding it to allow for benefits to cover delivery fees can help remove barriers to access that have previously been unaddressed.