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The Obama administration is allowing welfare recipients to use food stamps for online grocery purchases in a new pilot program.
The program includes seven participating retailers based in seven states and is slated to start as soon as this summer and continue for two years, the USDA said in a statement.
Participants will only be able to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits on select food items, not on service or delivery charges.
The seven states chosen for the pilot program are Maryland, New Jersey, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and Washington.
The administration hopes it can make healthy foods accessible to “food deserts,” or low-income areas where there are limited options for grocery stores.
“Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said. “We’re looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP.”
More than 43 million low-income individuals around the country received food stamps last year, according to the USDA.
The 2014 Farm Bill included a requirement that the USDA test online shopping with food stamps, but the pilot program was delayed because the technology was not ready in online supermarkets to accept the new debit card food stamps that replaced paper food stamps, the Baltimore Sun reported.
Retailers have mixed opinions of the program. While some retailers are excited about it, others are worried that the program would hurt brick-and-mortar supermarkets’ bottom lines, especially small local grocery stores in areas where larger chains are not present.
“Any time you tinker with any part of the revenue for a grocery store, you can literally send them in the red very quickly,” said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association.
Critics of the pilot program say the online delivery option could cause an increase in fraud with the food stamp program.
“The food stamps program is one of the largest means-tested welfare programs,” said Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation. “It is in major need of reform, including reforms to protect against fraud.”
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