Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Omar bill would allow SNAP benefits to be used to buy groceries online

As more people shop for groceries online during the coronavirus pandemic, SNAP benefits users are left behind.

Rep. Ilhan Omar
REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque
Rep. Ilhan Omar's SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act would require the Department of Agriculture to pilot an online purchasing program in every state.
Nearly one in twelve Minnesotans face food insecurity on a daily basis. According to the Minnesota Department of Human Services, more than 500,000 Minnesotans use Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (or SNAP), benefits that can be used to purchase groceries.

But there are restrictions on how SNAP benefits can be used. During the coronavirus epidemic, one restriction has been particularly burdensome: SNAP benefits generally can’t be used to purchase groceries online, even as more people use online grocery shopping to avoid potential coronavirus exposure while stay-at-home orders are in effect.

Rep. Ilhan Omar has a bill to change that. Her SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act would require the Department of Agriculture to pilot an online purchasing program in every state.

Article continues after advertisement

Expanding to 50 states

The United States Department of Agriculture already has a small pilot program for online shopping with SNAP benefits in place, mandated by the 2014 Farm Bill. Last year, that pilot launched in New York, followed by Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington. Omar’s bill would expand the pilot program to all fifty states.

“We shouldn’t be picking and choosing which families can and cannot get to order food online,” Omar said in a statement. “The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to determine which states may participate in the program, yet as of now, USDA allows only 8 states to participate, leaving millions of vulnerable individuals behind.”

Omar’s bill has been welcomed by advocacy groups and producers, like Hunger Solutions, Jewish Family and Children’s Service, the Native American Community Development Institute, the Los Angeles Regional Food Bank.

“It’s definitely come up that there are households on SNAP but that are facing health concerns and don’t want to be leaving their homes. And so they’re unable to use their SNAP benefits currently. So we would love to see any solution that would allow SNAP households to do grocery delivery and purchase online,” said Leah Gardner, Policy Director at Hunger Solutions Minnesota, a non-profit that provides anti-hunger support programs and advocacy in every county in Minnesota.

“Being able to have food delivered to them, like many of us do, I think would be hugely beneficial. In particular, senior populations that feel they’re at risk, those with underlying health conditions that are particularly vulnerable at this time,” said Gardner. “They’re simply, in some cases, really running low on food. We’ve even had people call our helpline that have gone multiple days without really much of anything.”

“I support Rep. Omar’s bill because with so many people struggling we need to make it as easy as possible for people to be able to get groceries,” said Rhys Williams, Executive Director of The Good Acre, a Falcon Heights nonprofit that provides support for new farmers, culinary training, and a community supported agriculture collective.  “It doesn’t make sense to restrict states from participating in this program during a crisis. People using SNAP should be able to purchase food online and it shouldn’t be dependent on your location.”

Omar’s bill currently has 15 cosponsors, all Democrats, including Democrat Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, Joe Neguse of Colorado, and Henry Cuellar of Texas. The bill has been introduced in the House but has not received a vote, nor is any vote currently scheduled.