Pilot program aims to help low-income families through access to online grocery delivery

Stock image, St. George News

ST. GEORGE — For St. George residents who rely on public transportation, getting groceries can be a real challenge.

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, more than 2 million people across the nation do not have access to reliable transportation and live more than one mile away from a supermarket.

Many people walk, bike or turn to public transit to get to the grocery store, but this takes time, money and energy, which can be especially hard for the elderly, people with physical disabilities and low-income families.

New research from Yale University suggests that online grocery delivery could be the answer for some in this demographic.

Although online delivery has jumped from less than one-quarter of U.S. consumers taking advantage of the service to more than a third of the population in 2019, low-income families on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) have limitations when paying for groceries online.

Currently, SNAP benefits in participating states can be used to purchase food online, but will not cover the delivery fees.

For people on what was traditionally the food stamp program, there has been a lot of bad rap about the quality of the food. When the program transitioned to SNAP’s card-based system, access to quality food became better. But for lower-income families, there is still the problem of getting to the store.

File photo | Associated Press photo by Sue Ogrocki, St. George News

A USDA pilot program is trying to solve the dilemma.

Eight states including Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington allow SNAP recipients to cover all of the costs of online grocery purchases.

Although Utah is currently not part of the pilot program, in theory, it could eliminate many low-income residents from living in a food desert, said Muris Prses, assistant director for eligibility services with the Department of Workforce Services.

“We certainly have food deserts in our state,” Prses said. “This pilot will be used to prove a concept … and if successful potentially (expanded) to other states.”

But, for the expansion to happen, Prses added, it must be approved by the USDA as well as be embraced by grocery store chains who offer online purchases.

For now, most low-income residents are forced to purchase food closer to home, often at convenience stores where many times the quality and nutritional value is poor.

“You also have to consider that food at (convenience stores) is sold at higher-price than grocery stores,” Prses said. “For people who are living in food deserts, online deliver is something very beneficial.”

Standing at a bus stop with several grocery bags in hand near the Smith’s Marketplace on Mall Drive, Diana Welsh said she would jump at the chance to use her SNAP benefits for online grocery delivery if it was available.

“It’s such a drag having to find someone to watch my kids so I can put food on the table,” Welsh said. “I don’t mind taking the bus so much, but I have to watch how much I buy. The bags can get heavy and I am not as young as I used to be.”

Welsh estimates she has to walk approximately two miles roundtrip to catch the bus and shop at the grocery store two or three times each week.

Because of the commute, stress caused by food insecurity can be overwhelming, she added.

“Some days I really don’t want to leave my apartment, but I have three mouths to feed, so what other choice do I have?” Welsh said.

The USDA pilot program will run for two years through April 2021, at which point it will undergo a review to ensure that all online transactions were secure and ran without technical difficulties. If successful the USDA hopes to expand the program nationwide.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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