Not long after the shelter-in-place order went into effect in California in March, Melissa Santos and her wife established new rules: they'd eat breakfast, try to get by with snacks, suppress hunger with coffee, and then have dinner.
Santos is a student at the University of California, Berkeley. At 32, she's older than most of her undergraduate peers; she spent years taking care of a grandmother with Alzheimer's before considering her own education and career.
The shelter-in-place order means Santos is allowed to go out to grocery stores, but her obesity puts her in a high-risk category for COVID-19, and her doctor advised her to stay home.
Santos is one of the nearly 40 million Americans on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program commonly known as food stamps, and that number is rising with the coronavirus-related layoffs. But few online grocery delivery services will accept SNAP payments.
So Santos has faced a stark choice: go out, risk getting severe COVID-19 or starve.
She goes out as little as possible and tries to stock up as much as possible on $194 a month. As students they already lived frugal lives, she explains, then breaks into tears.
"We're just having to make sure that we have enough for, you know, the next day," she says.
The fact that SNAP recipients can't get delivery has been a problem; after all, many have disabilities or restrictive medical conditions. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP, started a pilot program to enable online purchases. In a statement the USDA told NPR they approved all six states that wanted to join.
But Kristina Herrmann, director for underserved populations at Amazon, says it's much more more complicated than it should be.
There are a series of technology hurdles — from stores needing new systems online that differentiate between food and non-food items to states needing new systems to handle new payment processors. They're not unsolvable problems, they just haven't been done; food stamp issues don't tend to be top-of-mind for most technologists.
Because of COVID-19, the USDA now says it'll fast-track any state that wants to join the pilot. Eleven more were just approved, including California. Many should be online with authorized retailers by some point in May. In those states, Walmart will accept SNAP for grocery pickup but not delivery (and did not respond to NPR's requests for explanation); Amazon and Amazon Fresh will accept SNAP for online grocery orders, but SNAP customers of Amazon's Whole Foods chain will still have to shop in person.
So, even where delivery is possible, options are limited, and for the majority of SNAP recipients, still not possible.
The elephant in the room is, of course, Instacart, the leader in U.S. grocery delivery. Their app lets customers buy from around 25,000 stores in 5,200 cities. But the government says that because Instacart is not a retailer itself, it can't join the program.
Eliza Kinsey, who researches public health at Columbia University, points out that this is about more than food security. If high-risk people have to go out to get groceries, "potentially getting exposure, the more pressure we're going to be putting on the whole healthcare system," she says. It could mean more severe COVID-19 cases. In other words: this isn't a problem that merely affects poor people or those with medical conditions. It's a big problem for everyone.
DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Almost 40 million Americans are on SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. It's commonly known as food stamps. And that number is rising with layoffs. But unlike many Americans who can get groceries delivered if they need to stay home, most SNAP recipients cannot. Naomi Gingold gold explains.
NAOMI GINGOLD, BYLINE: Not long after the shelter in place went into effect in California last month, Melissa Santos and her wife established new rules. Breakfast, they'd eat; dinner, sure. But...
MELISSA SANTOS: We don't really have lunch.
GINGOLD: They'll just eat snacks or...
SANTOS: I've been drinking more coffee to suppress my hunger sometimes.
GINGOLD: Santos is a student at the University of California at Berkeley. At 32, she's older than most of her undergrad peers. She spent years taking care of a grandmother with Alzheimer's before considering her own career and education. Now, the shelter in place means Santos can go to the grocery store. But her obesity puts her in a high risk group for COVID-19 and her doctor said stay home. But no grocery delivery app would let her pay with her SNAP card. And she doesn't have extra money to pay for groceries and delivery. So she's been faced with a stark choice - go to the store, risk getting severe COVID-19 or starve. So they go out as little as possible and stock up as much as they can.
SANTOS: We're students, so we already ration as it is. So even now, like, we're having to - sorry. We're just having to make sure that we have enough for, you know, the next day, you know?
GINGOLD: The fact that SNAP users can't get delivery has been a problem. Many have disabilities or restrictive medical conditions. So in 2016, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the USDA, the organization that oversees SNAP, started a pilot program to enable purchases online. In a statement, the USDA told NPR they approved the states that wanted to join - just six.
KRISTINA HERRMANN: I have been living and breathing this thing for years. It is much more complicated than it should be probably.
GINGOLD: Kristina Herrmann is the director for underserved populations at Amazon. There are a lot of tech issues - not unsolvable, just not done.
HERRMANN: What we're hearing from the states is that it is a series of multiple weeks of work for their back end to get ready.
GINGOLD: The USDA now says it will fast-track any state that wants in, and 11 more were just approved, including California. And many should be online with authorized retailers by some point in May. That's four retailers; only two are national. Walmart will take SNAP for grocery pickup, not delivery. Amazon will take SNAP; Amazon Whole Foods will not for delivery. So limited even where possible and for the majority of SNAP recipients, still not an option. And that brings us to...
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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Can't get to the store? Instacart is here to help.
GINGOLD: Instacart - their app lets customers buy from 25,000 stores in 5,200 cities. But the U.S. government says because Instacart is not a retailer itself, it can't join the program. Eliza Kinsey researches public health at Columbia, and she says this is about more than just getting food.
ELIZA KINSEY: The more that people are of higher risk are out in the community potentially getting exposure, the more pressure we're going to be putting on the whole health care system.
GINGOLD: Because if high-risk people have to be out getting groceries, it could mean more cases and more difficult ones. For NPR News, I'm Naomi Gingold.
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