I can’t forget that a little bit of progress for the poor is bound to make a rich man even richer.
Photo by Austin Kehmeier on Unsplash
Last night, my mom called me, extremely upset, and worried about how she was going to use her SNAP EBT benefits, aka food stamps,before theyexpired. As a single woman on Social Security and formerly, disability, her SNAP allotment is usually pretty small???less than $20 a month. But the coronavirus pandemic has changed things. First of all, my mom quit shopping in physical stores. As a woman approaching her 70s with diabetes and heart disease, she?s at a higher risk of complications if she were to catch COVID-19.
Her health, however, has been on the decline for a while, long before the pandemic. It?s hard for her to walk without becoming winded. She?s now got nurses who come to her apartment a couple of times a week to take her vitals and wrap up her legs.
SinceIcan?tdragmydaughter aroundtownandshopformymom, she?s been relying upon Instacart to shop at Aldi?s, or using Walmart home delivery. Like many folks on a fixed income, the stimulus check was a relief because it took some strain off the ever-increasing cost of herfood. Meanwhile, her SNAP money has been rolling over month-to-month since you always had to go to the store yourself, or have an authorized user like a family member go shopping for you with your physical card.
My kid and I are still social distancing, though. We haven?t stepped foot in a store since March 14becauseofthecoronavirus,and while I?ve dropped off some groceries for my mom or ordered some basics to makesureshe?sokay,I haven?t physically gonegrocery shopping forherinmonths. Last night, however, my mom explained that she was worried because she hadn?t used her SNAP EBT card since the lockdowns began. The government normally puts a timberline on how long you can go without using your EBT card before being cut from the program, but the pandemic has also led to extensions on such dates.
?It?s a good problem,? my mom explained, ?but they raised my monthly amount because of the coronavirus and now I don?t know how to getoutandgoshopping. Can you do it for me??
?Yes, I?ll help,? I assured her.?But let me research the options. What do you need??
My mom went on to tell me that she wanted to get all shelf-stable food. She?d been buying fresh groceries with her stimulus check and (reasonably) didn?t want to fill her fridge with food that might spoil too quickly.
As far as either of us knew, my mom could place an order in the Walmart grocery app and then I could go pick it up for her, but one of us would have to go into the store to pay with her EBT card. Going in to pay for an order isn?t necessarily as risky as the shopping itself, but it wasn?t something either one of us wanted to do. As a single mom, I have to bring my six-year-old everywhere I go.
The only other option we knew of was for me to go grocery shopping at a local store like Publix, Target, or Aldi. Again, neither one of us were really looking forward to such an option.
?Everyone keeps saying they can?t wait until we can shop onlinewithEBT,? my mom said, referring to the nurses who come by to wrap her legs each week.
?You know what???I wonder if you can. Just a minute?? I replied.
While my mom continuedchatting, I googled Amazon EBT Tennessee. I knew there?d been talk for years about finally allowing SNAP recipients to use their EBT cards to shop online, but progress on the project seemed to move at a snail?s pace. I haven?t used EBT for years now, so I?ve also been out of the loop.
I found this article published inMay, and was surprised to discover that several states have allowed recipients to shop for groceries on Amazon with their SNAP EBT as of June 1.
?Mom, it looks like you can place an order for groceries on Amazon if you?d like.?
According to Amazon, they now accept EBT SNAP cards from residents in Alabama, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, District of Columbia, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin and ?select regions of Illinois.?
SNAP customers have (potentially) three ways to shop: standard Amazon.com goods which frequently include large sizes or multi-packs, Amazon Pantry, or Amazon Fresh. Personally, I don?t have any experience shopping Fresh because it?s not available in my area, and I haven?t been a big fan of Amazon Pantry, simply because it?s been a bit more limited for my needs. I suggested my mom try out the standard Amazon.com for her first SNAP order.
While she?s mostly comfortable navigating Amazon?s website, my mom still felt overwhelmed about placing the order, so, we talked about the kind of food she wanted and I filled up her cartandtookcareofthe ordering processforher.
It was pretty slick and easy, which surprised me. I?m pretty sure that most folks who?ve ever used SNAP benefits are familiar with the frustration of waiting in line at the grocery store when the system malfunctions or cashier starts arguing about what is or isn?t allowed.
It?s not just time consuming, but humiliating too.
The Foods approved for SNAP EBT are all sold and shipped by Amazon???so, no third-party sellers or ?fulfilled by Amazon? allowed. Once you add your card to your Amazon account, as you place items in your cart, it will tell you if it?s an approved item or not. For example:
There are no limitations on the sorts of foods allowedthatdifferfromthe standard SNAPguidelines, so families can select candy and snack foods if they like. I realize that?s a touchy issue for folks who think poor people shouldn?t have a right to choose their own groceries. But I?m against placing ?healthy? regulations upon SNAP for a variety of reasons. For one thing, even the experts can?t agree upon what makes a healthy diet. Also, I believe that poor or struggling people need autonomy. And they don?t need to be pushed into unhealthy relationships with food where some choices are villainized.
It makes more sense to offer incentives on nutritious purchases rather than banning treats and telling poor folks what they do or do not deserve.
In my mom?s case, she wanted shelf-stable, mostly ?healthy? stuff, so we ordered her a pretty good selection of milk, water, coffee, canned vegetables, brown rice and beans, electrolyte drink powder, and nuts.
When we were ready to place the order, I simply selected her SNAP EBT card for payment, and the Amazon app took me to a special page where I could input her PIN.
As with all SNAP purchases, this one was tax-free, and the order was large enough to have no shipping fee (which can?t be paid with a SNAP card). We placed the order on Saturday night and about 95% of it is expected to arrive by Thursday. So, it looks like SNAP shoppers will need to plan for about a week of possible travel time.
For plenty of folks with SNAP, this is considerable progress. I appreciate that some people within our government were able to see the need for online shopping. Plenty of people who haven?t needed EBT benefits simply don?t understand what it?s like to have no transportation and no money to even get to a grocery store. Or, they?re clueless about how impossible delivery services like Instacart are for those who are already cash-strapped.
One often-overlooked way that poor people suffer is at the grocery store. For people on a tight budget, the larger packages of food which offer substantial savings are often beyond reach. Because Amazon offers competitive pricing on many shelf-stable foods and free delivery, this is definitely agoodthing.
That said, I also can?t say the progress isn?t complicated. I feel less great about the fact that Amazon?s ability to accept SNAP EBT cards makes an already wealthy Jeff Bezos even wealthier. Not to mention the fact that it takes business away from local and independent grocers.
Lots of poor people live in a food desert today. I can?t help but wonder how the pandemic, along with this amendment to the SNAP program will impact indie grocers across the country,andcreateevenmoreof thosedeserts. Afterall, commonsense tells me it won?t be great. Food deserts can benefit from online shopping solutions, but the online solutions can help make more food deserts.
The next obvious step is to expand the online acceptance of SNAP EBT to other retailers, including local businesses instead of just leaving the spoils to Amazon and Walmart.
It seems that the coronavirus and America?s current state of protesting for equal civil rights might propel us into a more modern economy faster than anyone anticipated. Even Andrew Yang, the former Democratic presidential candidate who ran on a platform of universal basic income (UBI) couldn?t have guessed how much new interest there?d be in his ideas.
I?m not saying that America is going to see UBI anytime soon. However, the growing push for such a program, along with these changes to the SNAP EBT program, and even Minneapolis?s vow to disband its police force are indicators that we are shifting.
I am hopeful that we will continue to shift toward practical and people-first solutions rather than more restrictions and unnecessary government red tape. But we definitely need to go into these solutions with our eyes wide open. As our programs shift, we need to find ways to hold the most powerful and wealthy among us accountable. We also need to work on solutions for the small businesses (like indie grocers and convenience stores) being shut down as a result of our quickly changing economy.
As for my mom, I?m really grateful that she now has Amazon as an option. It will take time, but I know she?ll get used to using the site to order her own groceries and have that bit of autonomy rather than relying upon me to take care of the orders.
And, of course, I?ll continue to help ensure her grocery needs are met through other ways, like helping to cover Instacart and dropping stuff off as needed.
It?s not lost on me, however, that lots of families who rely upon SNAP lack that sort of support. We can do better on this front. As our country shifts to embrace more people-centered solutions, we need to consider how we can better support those in need every step of the way.
SNAP recipients can get more information about using their benefits on Amazon from their state?s SNAP website (here?s the page for Tennessee) and Amazon?s SNAP-dedicated page.