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As Coronavirus Spreads, People Who Rely on Food Assistance Struggle to Get Groceries Safely

6 minute read
Updated: | Originally published:

When Teresa Coleman needs groceries, she has to leave her apartment complex in Decatur, Georgia, wait for a bus to arrive, ride roughly 20 minutes with other passengers, enter a store with other shoppers and hope that employees there will help her grab any items she can’t reach herself from her motorized wheelchair.

In normal times, this process is cumbersome. But during the coronavirus pandemic, it’s dangerous. Coleman, 56, has both asthma and bronchitis and relies on a wheelchair for mobility, which means that if she gets COVID-19, she is at high-risk of becoming seriously ill and facing outsized hurdles at a hospital. “When you’re in the store, you have to be around people,” she says, “and that’s real scary.”

It’s about to get worse for her. Starting May 1, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp lifted the state’s shelter-in-place order, but advised elderly and “medically fragile” residents, like Coleman, to continue sheltering through June 12. But there’s only so much Coleman can do: she still needs to get food somehow. While many other Americans have turned to ordering groceries or food delivery online during the pandemic, that’s not an option for her. She relies on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as food stamps, to help her buy food, which doesn’t allow for grocery delivery in her state.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been working on a pilot program for years that allows SNAP recipients to order groceries online, but so far only 12 states have implemented it. Now, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to spread around the country, advocates for low-income people, those with disabilities and older Americans are pushing more states to sign up in an effort to help allow the 37 million Americans using SNAP benefits to shelter at home.

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In addition to Americans with disabilities and chronic health conditions, like Coleman, the coronavirus has been hitting low-income areas particularly intensely. COVID-19 is killing black Americans at a much higher rate than their white counterparts. “It is well documented at this point that the risks of the pandemic are greater for those very groups that were already struggling,” says Kyle Waide, president and CEO of the Atlanta Community Food Bank. “Communities of color, older Americans, lower income families—all of these are facing greater risks than the general population.”

Many of those same groups are disproportionately likely to be SNAP recipients at this time. A record 30 million Americans—mostly those in lower income roles—have lost their jobs since March. At least 12.7 million have lost their employer-provided health care benefits, and millions more are newly relying on charity and donations to access basic necessities, like food and medicine. The food pantries served by Waide’s organization have seen 30 to 40% more people relying on food donations since the pandemic began, he says, and his staff has seen a surge in SNAP applications, too.

Alabama, Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, and Washington state have so far implemented the SNAP online purchasing program. The 2014 Farm Bill first authorized the USDA to explore using SNAP benefits online and the department’s Food and Nutrition Service chose retailers to participate in 2017, but the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot did not launch until April of 2019. In the past month, an additional six states plus Washington, D.C. have received approval and expect to start in May or June, according to the USDA.

At least 14 other states have applied to join the pilot, according to RespectAbility, a disability group that has been pushing the program to expand. That list includes Georgia, which submitted an application to join the program last month, a spokesperson for the state’s Division of Family & Children Services tells TIME. The state has partnered with Kroger and Walmart to allow SNAP recipients to order groceries for in-store or curbside pickup, but the application for the USDA’s online program is still being processed, and once it is approved, Georgia expects it will need another seven to nine weeks to coordinate systems and conduct testing before it can go live.

Part of the reason for the long timeline is the specific technology the online pilot requires. Each state’s SNAP system has to be updated to handle online purchasing, and retailers must be able to accept SNAP electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards as payment. While the Food and Nutrition Service initially approved eight retailers, the ones currently participating include Amazon, Walmart, ShopRight and Wright’s Market. A USDA study last August found that nearly two-thirds of the authorized retailers did not have systems or equipment that could identify SNAP-eligible products, and that meeting the requirements in the Farm Bill could cost between $7,000 and $10,500 per retailer.

As the pandemic has continued, a coalition called the Consortium for Citizens with Disabilities wrote to Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Food and Nutrition Service Administrator Pam Miller urging more action on the program. And the issue has gotten some attention from members of Congress, such as Pennsylvania Sen. Bob Casey and Minnesota Rep. Ilhan Omar.

The topic is one that appeals to advocates from a wide variety of communities, says Janet LaBreck, a board member at RespectAbility who helped bring the issue to the group’s attention. LaBreck is blind, so she started shopping online when the pandemic hit to avoid touching unnecessary items or needing assistance at her local grocery store. But she would like SNAP recipients to have the same options she has. The pandemic, she says, offers an opportunity for agencies to re-examine their policies and find ways to help more people.

For now though, as states work to set up their programs and others wait for federal approval, SNAP recipients are left with limited options. Martha Lindsay, 75, lives on less than $1,200 per month and relies on a combination of SNAP and help from her local food pantry. While the pantry has been “wonderful,” she says, there’s always a long line at the grocery stores, even when she goes at 7 a.m. for their “senior hour,” which is meant to limit customers during the pandemic. Ordering online would be a “blessing,” Lindsay adds. “We need to stay safe.”

Coleman, too, would like to avoid exposing herself and her family to the virus. She can sometimes ask her brother for assistance, but her relatives also have their own families to worry about. “I’m very independent and I hate to ask for help,” she explains. If she could use her food stamps to get groceries delivered, “that would help a lot,” she adds. “I would feel more secure.”

Please send tips, leads, and stories from the frontlines to virus@time.com.

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Write to Abigail Abrams at abigail.abrams@time.com