Several years go, an online fresh food order and delivery service launched a pilot in the Bronx that enabled low-income residents to use their SNAP (food stamp) benefits for purchases and have them delivered for free.
I’m told the company — FreshDirect — views the experiment as a roaring success, presumably because the profits from the additional purchases at least offset the costs.
It’s surely a model worth further trials because it promises to reduce food insecurity and improve the healthfulness of what poor and near-poor people eat.
This is perhaps especially true for some low-income seniors and people with disabilities because getting to a grocery store — and then home with bundles of groceries — poses obvious challenges for people who can’t drive or find some helpful soul to chauffeur them.
Now there’s an opportunity for nonprofits and/or government agencies to address their problem.
Food Insecurity and Hunger
About 5.4% of people in their 60s suffer from food insecurity, according to updated (but not up-to-date) figures in an analysis for the AARP Foundation. Somewhat over 3.7% more have “very low food security,” i.e., at least sometimes don’t have enough of anything to eat.
Both rates are lower than for the U.S. population as a whole. But they still mean that about one in nine seniors who haven’t reached 70 can’t always afford “enough food for an active, healthy life.”
This doesn’t mean the rest have a healthful diet, however. As the analysts note, the questions in the survey used for food insecurity focus on financial resources. For seniors, other factors may also matter, as I suggested above.
We don’t, so far as I know, have food insecurity and hunger rates for people with disabilities. The best we’ve got come from a U.S. Department of Agriculture analysis of food insecurity among households that included a working-age adult too severely disabled for employment.
A third of them were food insecure in 2009-10. And nearly half of these included at least one member who at least sometimes went hungry.
Costs associated with disabilities help explain the extraordinarily high rates — health care and special equipment, for example, and in some cases, lower (or no) earned income by another household member because s/he had to be home to provide care.
USDA also notes other factors, e.g., insufficient Supplement Security Income and SNAP benefits. But even if SNAP benefits would cover food costs, it says, someone with a disability may face logistical challenges.
These are basically the same as those confronting seniors, who may, of course, have disabilities. Advancing age tends to bring these on us.
FreshDirect Pilot and Other Online Services
The pilot involved both some investments and approval from USDA so that the company could accept SNAP benefits as payment. It had two problems to address — one technological and one reflecting federal policy.
On the technological front, the company had to develop a way to scan the electronic benefits cards that are our modern-day equivalent to food stamps and to modify its website so that it could accept orders from people who’d pay with these cards.
On the policy front, it had to either absorb the delivery costs or charge its SNAP customers because their benefits cover only food and beverage costs.
Several other grocery companies have somewhat similar online services, though most, it seems, not free delivery. Perhaps Safeway, but only for people with disabilities and only through some direct interaction with its customers service department.
Only government and nonprofit organizations can qualify. And they can accept the benefits only for food delivered to households headed by someone who’s at least 60 years old or disabled and “unable to shop for food,” i.e., by going to a grocery story.
Organizations can charge for delivery, but no more than $20 at any one time. They can also set an order minimum up to $50.
At the same time, USDA said it would soon seek up to 20 food purchasing and delivery services for a one-year pilot. Details yet to come. Lessons learned, it said, will help shape the final rule.
Better Than Nothing, But …
The rule USDA will issue — and thus the projects it will pilot — have limits rooted in the Farm Bill. So not everyone who could benefit will. Nor those who could as much as they might perhaps.
For example, using EBT cards to pay for home-delivered food would benefit SNAP recipients who are neither elderly nor too disabled to shop easily at a grocery store.
The CEO of FreshDirect cites “working moms.” We should also, I think, consider others who don’t drive or have someone who’ll regularly drive them for free.
Speaking from personal experience, trundling a weeks’ worth of groceries home in a cart, as I briefly had to, takes a fair amount of strength when you’re trundling on uneven brick sidewalks and across potholed streets.
And it drives up costs because it pretty well rules out economy-size packages — assuming you can’t trundle repeatedly every week. Ditto for stocking up when foods are on sale.
Potential delivery charges are problematic too. We can assume, I think, that most SNAP recipients don’t have big freezers or a lot of other food storage space. So they’d have to use a home delivery services at least several times a month.
A person with a severe disability who relies on SSI benefits receives, at most, $733 a month. And that’s often got to cover all basic living costs except food and some health care. Home delivery at the maximum allowable would even mean less money for them.
Ideally, SNAP recipients could use their benefits for home delivery charges. But merely expanding what the benefits can cover is no solution because they’re already too low — at most, only about $2.30 per meal for a single person and less than twice that for a couple.
Low for anybody, but especially for people who can’t prepare most of what they eat from scratch, as the basis for SNAP benefits assumes.
On the other hand, expecting nonprofits to swallow the costs of home delivery service seems like the sort of cost-shifting we already see, as they (and their donors) help stave off hunger among those who receive SNAP benefits, as well as those who, for various reasons, don’t.
So I would hope that state and local governments seize the opportunity to defray delivery costs. Like as not, they’d save at least as much as they spend, since regular, reasonably balanced meals help prevent — and control — a range of chronic diseases that drive up their healthcare costs.