Used by many in Benton County, online Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) first launched in New York State in 2019 and became available for a few other states earlier this year. Now with COVID-19 making in-person shopping a more complicated and unsafe feat, the move for online SNAP has accelerated, now operational in 39 states and the District of Columbia. SNAP reported the number of users buying groceries online has skyrocketed from 35,000 in March to more than 750,000 at the end of June. In Oregon and 32 other states, however, SNAP users can only buy online at Amazon and Walmart, despite there being 250,000 retailers that accept SNAP nationwide.
Lawmakers and advocates are now arguing for more online SNAP options to become available. In a report by the Center for Digital Democracy (CDD), it was pointed out that only having two big online SNAP retailers available is placing obstacles in front of SNAP users’ access to fresh, healthy foods while shopping, and is leading them toward highly processed foods that are high in unhealthy ingredients like sugar and hydrogenated oils.
The CDD also found concerning evidence that online SNAP is exposing users to a loss of privacy via “increased data collection and surveillance,” which helps online advertisers in a process called personalization. Personalization allows online markets like Amazon and Walmart to target consumers and utilize tools and strategies to encourage the buying of unhealthy products. Specifically, they use “buy again” buttons to urge customers to buy food they have purchased in the past, or a reminder system that encourages shoppers to put items in their cart during checkout, building a sense of urgency for the customer that could result in them buying unhealthy foods.
The report says, “Because the interface is personalized—based on a person’s previous shopping behavior and other profiling data—the prompts that are aimed at an individual consumer can be even more powerful, and potentially much more detrimental to health, especially when used to promote sugar-sweetened beverages and foods that are high in salts, fats, and sugars.”
The CDD also notes how online retailers target consumers of color, urging the purchasing of unhealthy foods through data mining and multicultural marketing.
The Problem in Benton County
This nationwide issue reaches Benton County, where 9,711 citizens use SNAP. One of the largest local food sources, the Corvallis Farmers’ Market, now employs an online shopping system for consumers to shop safer and opt out of the busy in-person mid-week or weekend markets. However, because Amazon and Walmart are the only approved retailers for online SNAP, SNAP users are required to pay in person rather than online. This problem reaches other local fresh food sources in our area.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was the top Democrat on the funding subcommittee which oversees the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). In March, he announced the pilot program which allows SNAP recipients in the state of Oregon to purchase foods online on the Amazon and Walmart websites.
A spokesperson for Merkley stated, “In the Republican-controlled Senate, it was a battle for Sen. Merkley to secure online shopping at all for SNAP recipients, and he knows there’s work to be done. He will continue to push to make groceries as accessible as possible to SNAP recipients.”
U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden also hopped on in favor of improving online SNAP – in April, both he and Merkley, along with senators from Washington, California, and New York, pushed for Amazon and Walmart to waive delivery fees and minimum order requirements for SNAP recipients to make the process more affordable.
Wyden also signed a letter in May addressed to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue asking about the actions taken by the USDA in regard to expanding delivery options for SNAP recipients. The letter included nine questions to Perdue about how the department was providing for SNAP users, including ones about delivery and pickup options, access to internet for consumers in rural areas, and options for farmers’ markets for SNAP.
A spokesperson for Wyden also added, “[Wyden] joined colleagues on the floor last month asking for the GOP majority to allow a vote on a bill to expand SNAP, but they refused.”
It was recently announced that the Oregon Department of Human Services received approval from the USDA Food and Nutrition Service to continue providing increased food benefits and waivers for new applicants in light of the coronavirus pandemic. An additional $30 million will be provided to SNAP recipients next month.
Though food benefits are now easier to obtain, utilizing the resource online is still difficult, complicated, and potentially detrimental to SNAP consumers’ health.
By Cara Nixon