Last summer, I signed a petition to push for rules that would allow food stamp recipients to use their benefits online. Most people who live at or below the poverty line have more access to internet (74 percent) than to a car (30 percent). For the 23 million Americans who live in food deserts, this presents a problem.

Purchasing healthy foods online — which can sometimes be less expensive than purchasing them in the grocery store — with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, or food stamps, makes sense to me. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) is testing out a SNAP online purchasing pilot program that will begin this summer.

"Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. "We're looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP."

Parameters of the pilot program

The USDA isn't diving head first into the program; rather it's dipping its toes into the online waters in just seven states. The agency has selected a "variety of store types, including national online retailers as well as large grocery chains and smaller, regional networks to appropriately test online SNAP purchasing in different settings." Those settings are in both rural and urban areas, mostly on the coasts.

  • Amazon - Maryland, New Jersey, New York
  • FreshDirect - New York
  • Safeway - Maryland, Oregon, Washington,
  • ShopRite - Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania
  • Hy-Vee, Inc. - Iowa
  • Hart's Local Grocers - New York (based in Rochester)
  • Dash's Market - New York (based in Buffalo)

Under the new program, SNAP benefits cannot be used for service or delivery charges. The USDA hopes to expand the program once it confirms the system is operating as required (including making sure technical and security challenges are examined and fully addressed). Eventually, the goal is for online SNAP purchases to be a national option for all recipients.

Online shopping from a SNAP recipient's point of view

EBT-snap-cards EBT cards replaced paper food stamps well over a decade ago, paving the way for benefits to be used to shop online. (Photo: USDA/flickr)

I think this seems like a good idea, but I've been fortunate enough to never need SNAP. My friend Angela (not her real name) has used SNAP benefits for her family, so I asked her to weigh in.

Angela is a college-educated, work-at-home parent who has two special needs children who make having the ability to work from home important. She writes — often about food. She knows what good, healthy, nutritious food is and how important it is to her family. When the economy tanked several years ago her college-educated husband lost his full-time job and took another job that didn't pay as well. They found themselves for the first time in a position where they needed to seek financial help, including SNAP benefits for a time, even though they were both working.

I thought Angela might give me a pro-con type perspective. Maybe she'd tell me that she thought online shopping would have really been beneficial for her family when they were on SNAP. Or, maybe she'd tell me something completely different like how she could see how someone could game the system online.

I wasn't expecting what she had to say.

Angela is fine with the program and thinks it's a good way for people who don't have easy access to a grocery store to use their benefits for some healthy foods. But, she doesn't think that this program will make much of a difference in adding a lot of nutrition to the lives of many SNAP recipients.

"People need to have a decent income in order to eat well. They just do. We have a culture where crap food is cheaper than good food. Supplements to income by way of food stamps need to reflect that reality or food stamps may help people not starve to death, but they won't go far in helping a family eat nutritiously," Angela said.

Healthy food is expensive

When they were on SNAP, Angela's family of four was given $90 a month in benefits.

"I'm pretty damn knowledgeable about how to make magic happen in the kitchen with the ingredients I have ... but it's hard because good food is expensive," she said.

Her concern is that this online program will fail to get many SNAP recipients eating more nutritiously because the truly nutritious foods still will be financially out of reach. The program may end up being viewed by some as a failure, when in reality, it's the sheer lack of an adequate amount of income (and she includes SNAP benefits as income here) that is often the reason people fail to eat nutritiously.

"When you're on food stamps, you're trying to stretch every friggin' penny to try to make ends meet. Food stamps rarely help you actually make ends meet," she said.

She says it works something like this. There are things you can't give up and you can't tweak the price of — things like heat, water, the mortgage or the rent. You can tweak and compromise on food, though. When you get food stamps, your food budget doesn't necessarily increase. Often, the cash you had that was getting spent on food begins to go to the bills in an attempt to make ends meet, and your food budget remains the same — very small.

So while Angela thinks the program might be helpful for people who live in a supermarket wasteland, for the rest of SNAP recipients, shopping online may help them stretch their benefits a tiny bit, but not nearly enough to add enough of the right kinds of foods it takes to give families proper nutrition, not just calories. That doesn't mean the online program is a bad idea, it just means it may not solve the problem of getting nutrition into the bodies that need it.

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

USDA to test online shopping for food stamps
SNAP recipients in certain states will be able to buy groceries from designated retailers during the 2-year pilot.