The downward spiral began in early March 2020. For days, under the eyes of puzzled store clerks, residents had been emptying the shelves at a Brooklyn Trader Joe's supermarket and queuing up shoulder to shoulder in seemingly never-ending lines that filled the aisles. By the time monthly public food assistance funds were made available to its recipients in the first two weeks of March, little food was left. All staple items such as eggs, flour, pasta, rice, beans, oil or milk were gone, while luxury goods remained on the shelves. The same picture emerged at countless stores in the adjacent neighborhoods: financially secure customers had bought up affordable food items while leaving behind the eight-dollar chocolate bar, olive oil with truffles, five-dollar cans of beans and about-to-expire groceries for the food insecure. A young woman dramatically expressed concern about her privately invested retirement fund on the phone while stocking up at Whole Foods. (Good news for her last week: Americans finished 2020 with the largest retirement fund gains to date, thanks to a record stock market.) Meanwhile in less affluent neighborhoods, supermarket shelves were still full.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), about 43 million people relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) as of September 2020, an increase from about 37 million in February 2020. Formerly known as "food stamps," SNAP is a federal program run by the USDA in partnership with the states. EBT or electronic benefit transfer cards are used to distribute SNAP benefits, which – similar to debit cards – are designed to be swiped at in-store payment terminals. However, SNAP benefits can only be used to buy food items from authorized retailers and do not allow for the purchase of prepared and hot foods, alcohol or supplements. Accessibility, eligibility and benefit amounts differ widely from state to state, currently ranging from $19 to $234 monthly for a household of one. At its lowest amounts, it is designed to symbolically supplement grocery purchases and, at its best, it provides for a stringently budgeted, home-cooked meal plan. It hardly allows recipients to build up food reserves for an emergency, such as a lockdown during this pandemic – and this despite raised SNAP allotments through COVID relief legislation under President Trump and President Biden’s executive order increasing federal food benefits. Many others, such as undocumented immigrants and green card holders who have lived in the U.S. for less than five years, do not qualify and are left to fend for themselves without government assistance. According to research by The Brookings Institution, more than one in four households with children reported food insecurity in the summer of 2020, affecting nearly 14 million children.
For almost a year, news media have been showing people waiting in endless lines in front of food pantries and interviewing devoted volunteers staffing the distribution. They analyzed challenges in the supply chain, visited farmers who were dumping meat and milk, and offered recommendations on restaurant takeout. They consulted established food columnists on recipes to try during lockdown, rather than drawing on the skills of those who had gone hungry before and knew how to craft a delicious meal with limited ingredients. Most importantly, news media consistently stopped short of digging into the disparate realities of safe food access on the ground.
The practical implementation of the USDA's SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot throws this discrepancy into stark relief. While many U.S. residents readily expanded their existing online ordering practices from the safety of their homes when the pandemic hit, SNAP recipients were still obliged to visit authorized retailers to purchase food, putting themselves at added risk of contracting the virus to fulfill basic needs. The USDA's SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot allowed a handful of large corporations to process EBT payments online for pickup or delivery of groceries. Beginning only in New York State, Walmart, Amazon and ShopRite had been authorized pilot participants since April 2019. Yet, little to no information was available to a private citizen. These corporations had the logistic tools to supply groceries to those stranded at home when all other options failed. However, even in a central location like New York City, no reliable infrastructure was in place to safely and respectfully accommodate SNAP users.
Already in 2012, representing a test phase of the pilot, FreshDirect had begun offering Bronx residents EBT online purchases and delivery of groceries, amid concern about the environmental impact of its relocation to the heavily polluted South Bronx. FreshDirect referred inquiries about a possible expansion in view of the pandemic "to the representative for your district."
Walmart customer service denied that they were accepting EBT payments online and recommended using a gift card instead. A supervisor acknowledged the possibility, but stated the only option was traveling 20 miles to their store to pick up the online food order, since delivery was limited to a seven-mile radius.
Amazon, owned by the world's richest man, held the monopoly for EBT online purchases locally. It delivered broken, filthy boxes with spilled food, and customers were charged for missing items. On Amazon's EBT-authorized platform, some loaves of bread were offered for around $15 a piece, while store brand flour – otherwise sold out – was still available on the affiliated Whole Foods online platform at its regular price, but not for EBT purchases. Meanwhile, workers in Amazon's Staten Island warehouse, heavily affected by COVID-19, were struggling to obtain safe working conditions.
Within the frame of some programs, "cash" benefits are being issued to the EBT card in addition to SNAP. These "cash" funds are not limited to food purchases, but must be used at the payment terminal of an authorized retailer or withdrawn at certain ATMs. When staying home became a vital imperative, these funds were inaccessible for shopping or transfer electronically and yet could not be used for essentials either. According to the Office of Temporary Disability Assistance (OTDA), which administers the SNAP program on the state level, the only option was to designate an authorized representative who in turn would have to put themselves at risk to access the recipient's funds in person.
In view of this impasse, the urgent question arose in April 2020 which other corporate candidates were responding to the food access crisis and applying to participate in the USDA's Pilot. OTDA referred to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS), an agency of the USDA that overseas SNAP retailers, for a listing. FNS did not respond to multiple inquiries.
Eight more months into the pandemic, in mid-December, Aldi joined the USDA's SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot in New York State as part of an ongoing national rollout. The approval of the German discount supermarket chain represented a rare opportunity for SNAP users to safely obtain reasonably priced groceries. Unless local SNAP recipients were following trade publications, they were, though, unlikely to be informed about this addition. Underreported inequities pertaining to internet and technology access deserve a separate article.
Aldi participates in the pilot in collaboration with Instacart, which displays Aldi's products on its platform, processes EBT payments, and delivers orders on Aldi's behalf. While EBT-eligible food items can be purchased using the EBT card, a delivery fee (currently waved for the first three orders during a 90-day period), service fee, tip and any last-minute additions or substitutions exceeding the price of the first choice must be charged to a credit or debit card. Other expenses, such as sales tax, which retailers are not permitted to charge on EBT purchases, appear as well in Instacart's receipts.
Instacart's requirement to own a credit or debit card to participate and the inability to charge fees to the EBT card based on USDA guidelines represent an unnecessary barrier. In addition, SNAP users are being put in a terrible bind between the moral imperative to tip underpaid, job-insecure informal laborers who are putting their health at risk to deliver food and the need to control credit card debt in a time of crisis. Concurrently with the rollout of the pilot, media reported that Instacart laid off nearly 2000 of its workers, including all of its recently unionized employees, at the height of demand for home deliveries.
Unbeknownst to the public, Instacart disregards the USDA's requirement to offer the same prices and terms to all customers: As part of its promotional efforts, Instacart offers discounts to its customers through coupons. These coupons often represent significant savings, such as $20 off a $50 order. Instacart also rewards existing customers for referrals with a $10 coupon each. Contrary to Instacart's rules requiring "a valid form of accepted payment on file," none of these promotions can be applied to EBT purchases on the Instacart platform and are left to expire in the customer's account. An Instacart supervisor claimed not to have been questioned about the issue before. According to her, the reason for Instacart's not applying promotions to EBT accounts was that "the government has already provided the funds." A member of the Specialized Customer Support Team stated that "Instacart is not able to offer discounts through credits or promotion codes," since an "order is paid through a portion of (...) EBT benefits," while encouraging their use for "another purchase." The U.S. Aldi executive cited in Instacart's press release announcing the expansion of SNAP online payments could not be reached.
Besides engaging in blatant discrimination by charging the poorer more, Instacart appears to communicate that it is acceptable to waste government funds. Moreover, Instacart seeks to incentivize SNAP users, who access its platform to purchase groceries from Aldi, to make credit card purchases from other non-EBT- authorized retailers on its platform by not applying valid discounts to EBT purchases.
But who was going to address these inequities? The counsel and legislative director of a New York State Senator who introduced a bill seeking to advance SNAP online purchasing reacted aggressively and abruptly to questions about oversight and when the stipulated information campaign would start. When asked for guidance regarding the existence of an equivalent office for SNAP, the intake officer at New York City's Source of Income Discrimination Unit – run by the Department of Social Services (DSS) and generally staffed by attorneys dealing with housing – became overbearing and abusive. OTDA was "not aware" of advocacy on behalf of SNAP users who are being discriminated against due to the source of their funds. When asked for similar guidance, a sympathetic Constituent Affairs representative of DSS – which provides access to SNAP – exclaimed "I am stumped. There is really no organization for this." Both OTDA and DSS initially referred complaints to the retailers' corporate offices and the Better Business Bureau. Retailer supervision and civil rights representatives at USDA did not return repeated calls or emails. Emails sent to addresses provided on the USDA website for related complaints bounced back. In spite of exhaustive attempts, the USDA's Office of Inspector General could not be reached. The SNAP office at USDA did not answer calls. A USDA phone operator insisted a week into the Biden administration that Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture under Donald Trump, still "is in charge of everything." A polite woman answering calls for the Secretary of Agriculture shared with exasperation: "People call me to ask me, 'Who is your boss?' I don't even know!"
At the same time, some hunger and sustainability "advocates" are interposing themselves as indispensable intermediaries between the food insecure and their government contacts, peddling information obtained from the supposedly inarticulate. Direct access to proactive oversight is needed. Food is too important to become a tool for personal political advancement. The USDA has been actively shielding itself from the voices and experiences of millions of respectable, hardworking Americans who use its programs.
The sudden proliferation of initiatives pertaining to SNAP and online purchases in particular responds belatedly to long-standing needs. Creating a separate app for SNAP online purchases, as the bill introduced on February 9, 2021 by Democratic Senators Durbin and Duckworth stipulates, without proper oversight and privacy practices in place, risks further unequal treatment of SNAP users without recourse. Based on past behavior, retailers may offer lower quality or about-to-expire items, preselect groceries they deem to be of interest to low- income customers, provide less hygienic or safe delivery services, respond with less courtesy to customer complaints, further collect and share customer data with third parties without prior approval, as well as not apply discounts and coupons available to other customers.
In the absence of a clear strategy to counteract what is akin to Source of Income (SOI) discrimination pertaining to SNAP purchases, as it is widely accepted in housing-related matters, millions of Americans will be part of another unchecked giant experiment providing welcome income to retailers, but no protection to the customers. There is no room for further trade-offs. Let's do both: Safely provide urgently needed, convenient food assistance, and truly inclusive governance.
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