Representatives from Balls Food Stores, Amazon.com and Thrive Market testified on Nov. 16 in front of the House Agriculture Committee in an evaluation of the innovative strategies retailers use to improve access to nutritious foods. The hearing was the last of a review process known as “The Past, Present and Future of SNAP: Opportunities for Improving Access to Food,” the findings of which will be detailed in a report released by Chairman K. Michael Conaway in the coming weeks.
Mike Beal, COO of Balls Food Stores in Kansas City, Kan., shared the positive impacts that Double Up Food Bucks, a healthy food incentive program, has had for the communities Balls serves. The goal of the program is to provide access to and increase the affordability of fresh fruit and vegetables for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients while offering greater opportunities for local farmers to increase income by selling more produce locally and to provide more dollars to the local community.
“I believe our success with the program has been fantastic for the communities our stores serve and the SNAP customers who are now able to stretch their benefits further while purchasing local produce and supporting local farmers in our communities,” Beal noted in the written testimony he provided the Agriculture Committee. He went on to state that the Double Up program, which offers beneficiaries with a one-to-one match to purchase healthy, locally grown fruits and vegetables, provided additional education about healthy eating, encouraged customers to try new types of produce and allowed them to stretch their SNAP benefits further.
Redeem SNAP Online
Seattle-based Amazon’s Director of Grocery Eric French detailed in his written testimony how “the current restriction on redeeming SNAP benefits online limits the ability of those with food insecurity to stretch their SNAP dollars by comparison shopping and allocating SNAP dollars where they can provide the most benefit.”
Extending SNAP benefits to e-commerce would allow those that have food insecurity to “benefit from the same access to value, selection and convenience that many of us enjoy.” E-commerce access would also allow SNAP beneficiaries to have access to the more affordable options that could stretch their benefits further.
Gunnar Lovelace, founder and co-CEO of Los Angeles-headquartered Thrive Market, also addressed the Agriculture Committee and provided a written testimony. He noted that 75 percent of people living in poverty have a smartphone, which gives them access to ordering goods and services that may have previously been out of reach. Thrive Market has given away tens of thousands of free memberships to many families that are buying healthy, natural products for the first time, he wrote, as well as giving away hundreds of thousands of dollars in stipends to help lower income families.
“It’s amazing that in the 21st century you still can’t use SNAP benefits online, but one can buy almost anything else online. This example of the digital divide has been a focal point for us because more than 50% of the families in our Giving program are on government assistance,” Lovelace noted. “Given increased levels of internet connectivity, if SNAP were brought online nationally, the positive effect on our nation’s most vulnerable populations would be immediate and dramatic.”
This summer, Thrive Market launched a national campaign to bring SNAP online and gathered 325,000 signatures in support in three months. As a result, the USDA committed to a timetable to launch a SNAP online pilot program, but Lovelace encouraged the USDA to speed up the rollout and expand it nationally.
“A robust federal effort to push forward innovation in the SNAP program and expand the program quickly, so that all SNAP participants can participate, will help save billions of dollars in health care spending in the long run, and will help low-income families in our country live healthier, happier lives,” Lovelace concluded.