Approximately 46 million Americans rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, for help paying for food. However, it’s often impossible for participants in the $74 billion program to use the funds, sometimes known as food stamps, to order groceries online. That’s despite the growth of services like Amazon Fresh and FreshDirect, which could help the millions of families in so-called “food deserts” access quality produce.
Gunnar Lovelace, and Nick Green, the co-founders and co-CEOs of online grocer Thrive Market, are banding together with other companies and organizations in an effort to allow SNAP participants to order food over the Internet. TIME spoke with Lovelace and Green about their efforts and the challenges they’re facing. Our conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
TIME: How did your efforts to change SNAP first begin?
Lovelace: Our business and our mission is focused on making healthy living easy and affordable to everybody. The way that we do that is, we have a membership model of $60 a year. For every paid membership, we give a membership away to a low-income family.
We hear from a lot of the families in our giving program that they’re on food stamps and they can’t use the website to its full potential. It was a very natural thing for us to focus on, as part of our investment in making good on our social mission as a business. We’ve been working with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (which oversees SNAP), trying to get them to accept food stamps online for the last year and a half.
Why is that taking so long?
Lovelace: SNAP is inherently a controversial program. Because of that, and because of the size of the program, there are obviously concerns about fraud or the payment processors that handle these transactions. I think [the USDA] is also just a very-slow moving organization that tends to be very cautious because of the highly politicized environment we live in.
Regardless of one’s political views about food stamps, if we’re going to be spending money making sure people get free food, we need to make sure that they get access to the healthiest food possible, so they’re not getting sick and causing extra costs on the medical system. That’s a very non-political way of viewing it. There are a lot of technical, bureaucratic and political logistics that they’re wading through.
There’s also a business logic here in that, if you can sell to people who are using SNAP, that could mean more sales.
Lovelace: Sure, there’s no doubt about that. But it’s not an effort just for us to be able to accept food stamps online. We’re spearheading a cross-section of brands and non-profits and influencers.
To your point, there’s almost $80 billion a year spent on SNAP and obviously, we would like to be able to complete for that share of the wallet. That’s secondary, though. The truth is for us, for every paid membership, we give a membership away. If those folks that are in our giving program who are on food stamps can’t utilize the platform to their full benefit, it really inhibits our effectiveness to be successful with our social mission.
You recently visited Washington to rally support from Congress. How’d that go?
Lovelace: We had over one hundred senior staffers from congressional offices come to the briefing that we hosted with [Ohio Democratic] Congressman Tim Ryan and [actress] Shailene Woodley and a bipartisan group of staffers. We framed the conversation around saving costs, driving innovation, and making programs more effective. We really felt like there was a lot of alignment and interest.
What’s your sense there will actually be a change in policy, given it’s an election year and energies may be focused elsewhere?
Green: We feel that food stamps are going to go online. For us, it’s an issue of implementation and speed. There was going to be a pilot in the spring of 2015, but that kept getting moved around, and [the USDA] just wasn’t responsive.
Our petition isn’t meant to bash the USDA. We recognize that SNAP is a really big program with all sorts of complexities. What our hope is, is to emphasize that we want to make sure that this gets done quickly. When the USDA launches a pilot, it will typically take 18 to 24 months and test it in one market. If they were to do that same approach in this situation, it could be two-and-a-half to three-plus years before food stamps go online nationally.
The issue strikes me as another example of how the digital economy can leave behind low-income neighborhoods and families.
Lovelace: It’s also interesting that a lot of families that don’t speak English, don’t have dedicated Internet at home, they’re still on smartphones, the penetration of smartphones is really astounding. People will pay their phone bill before they pay their rent. That’s a really powerful fact that we can leverage.
We saw a study recently where . . . less than 3% of the folks in a food desert here in L.A. were able to buy food from a grocery store, and the rest was convenient stores, fast food and liquor markets. Being able to access healthy food online seems like such a basic thing at this point, particularly for those communities that either are in a food desert, don’t have good transportation, or just frankly don’t have enough time to shop.
How’s business otherwise?
Green: Business otherwise is incredible. We’re over 300,000 paid members right now. We’re seeing really incredible engagement levels in a couple of the areas that we’ve been investing in . . . we’ve launched over sixty of our own private, local products that are now driving almost 10% of our sales. We just raised a very big financing round less than a month ago. [Ed. note: Thrive Market is not yet profitable.] We have a partner that’s encouraging us to think long-term about not just continuing to grow fast, but really delivering on that value proposition to our membership of making healthy living accessible in the terms of the products being there, but also really easy in terms of being convenient, having the information that they need, and getting them really educated about the space.