Next summer, Illinois residents on food stamps may be able to buy their groceries online through a two-year federal pilot program intended to increase food access for the poor, according to The Chicago Tribune.
Online shopping has dramatically altered buying habits for most Americans in recent years, and now, the $75 billion federal food stamps program, officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is moving toward making that option available to the 43 million or so people across the country receiving benefits.
The test run, authorized by the 2014 Farm Bill, is intended to help the U.S. Department of Agriculture work out the kinks before making online purchasing a permanent option. To help accomplish this complex goal, USDA officials are expected to announce Thursday a request for online grocery retailers to participate in the program. Up to five retailers in as many as three states will be chosen; the program is expected to begin next summer.
"We will learn what some of the challenges are and how the program works online. ... I would expect it to enhance the program for people with limited mobility, those with disabilities or people who have to be careful about moving out of their house for whatever reason," said USDA Undersecretary Kevin Concannon in a recent interview.
In Illinois, about 1.9 million people receive assistance through SNAP, up from about 1.2 million people some 10 years ago. The vast majority of SNAP benefits — 82 percent — are redeemed at supermarkets and merchants like Costco, though in so-called food deserts, such as some low-income African-American neighborhoods on Chicago's South and West sides, immediate access to healthy food is often limited to what's available at corner stores.
Concannon said he expected the online sales to be a "step in the right direction" for people living in food deserts. At the same time, the USDA is in the process of increasing the stock of healthy food offerings at all authorized SNAP retailers.
Mari Gallagher, a Chicago-based researcher of food equity issues often credited with popularizing the term "food desert" in a 2006 study, called the SNAP pilot program overdue but applauded the USDA for pushing forward with it.
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