This article was written by Ali (Alexandra) Schklair, FLPC Intern.
On July 2nd Senators Tammy Duckworth (D-IL) and Dick Durbin (D-IL) introduced the Expanding SNAP Options Act (S.4202). The proposed legislation addresses flaws in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) online purchasing program, which has become increasingly important during the COVID-19 crisis. Since the start of COVID-19, FLPC has been committed to identifying gaps in the federal government’s response to food system challenges. Accordingly, we have provided policy recommendations for meeting the continued needs of food producers, workers, and consumers. One of our key recommendations is to expand the SNAP online purchasing program and ensure that a range of retailers – including small, independent retailers and farmers markets – are able to participate as vendors. We are thrilled that the Expanding SNAP Options Act addresses this concern. We enthusiastically support this legislation and believe the expansion of the SNAP online purchasing program will make SNAP online purchasing more accessible during this difficult time.
The SNAP online purchasing pilot program, which was first authorized in the 2014 Farm Bill, allows SNAP recipients in select states to use their benefits for online purchases. While the 2018 Farm Bill expanded the pilot to become a national program, the USDA was slow to approve states for the program. However, because health concerns and social distancing orders during COVID-19 have made in-person grocery shopping more difficult, USDA has expedited its approval process in recent months. As of July 13th, 2020, forty states have been approved. While we are glad USDA has approved more states, we are happy to see that the Expanding SNAP Options Act requires USDA to swiftly approve all fifty states for online purchasing capabilities.
Another concern with the SNAP online purchasing program is that a limited number of retailers have been approved for online SNAP sales, with Amazon and Walmart as the only approved retailers in most states. Due to restrictions on in-person dining and shopping during COVID-19, these large e-commerce retailers are already seeing major hikes in sales, while small and locally owned businesses are struggling to stay open. We see the online purchasing program as an opportunity to boost business for small retailers and farmers while providing more purchasing options for consumers. Our recommendations included many steps Congress can take to diversify SNAP online purchasing options. Specifically, we proposed funding for USDA to partner with a technology firm to create a central online portal to help retailers and farmers participate as vendors in the SNAP online purchasing program, and alleviate the challenges small businesses face in setting up online SNAP payment systems. We also recommended that Congress provide funding to states to help vendors integrate Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) technology into their business. Finally, we recommended Congress provide funding to subsidize delivery fees for small retailers and farmers. This is a cost Amazon and Walmart can easily pay (and indeed, they have waived the delivery fee for orders over a certain dollar amount), but poses a real challenge for most small businesses.
We are thrilled that Senator Duckworth (D-IL) and Senator Durbin (D-IL) included our recommendations in the Expanding SNAP Options Act. The legislation includes three key measures: 1) it requires USDA to implement the online purchasing program in all states, 2) it provides $25 million for USDA to work with a technology firm to create an online portal to help connect small retailers with SNAP customers, and 3) it provides $75 million for a USDA Technical Assistance Center to support smaller retailers and vendors with becoming authorized to accept SNAP online. FLPC fully supports the Expanding SNAP Options Act, which removes barriers to food access and provides opportunities for local businesses, small and independent retailers, and farmers during the current public health crisis, and afterward.