Future Tense

Online Grocery Delivery Is About to Kill Food Deserts

But then, food deserts were never even the problem.

Three rows of shopping carts under an outdoor awning.
Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

During the Obama administration, eliminating food deserts, or low-income urban or rural areas without a nearby supermarket, became a cause célèbre. Michelle Obama made building new grocery stores to combat food deserts part of Let’s Move, her signature initiative to reduce childhood obesity. Since 2011, the federal government alone has distributed more than $267 million in grants and helped secure more than $1 billion in loans to build new stores and update existing markets. And the federal government will award at least $4 million in additional grants in 2022.

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Now, more than a decade after the movement to bring more fresh fruits and veggies to lower-income neighborhoods began in earnest, the death of the food desert is imminent. But it’s not the result of all that investment. The question of proximity to supermarkets is becoming moot as online grocery delivery services continue to grow. With the rise of online grocery delivery services, the food desert discussion has become a distraction from steps that could actually improve the health of people living in poverty. In this case, that would be increasing SNAP benefits so that people could afford to buy better food.

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Grocery delivery has come a long way since the first service, Peapod, launched in a handful of cities in the 1990s, and even since 2012, when Instacart debuted. Now, grocery delivery is ubiquitous. More than 90 percent of urban areas designated by the USDA as food deserts are served by grocery delivery services (and 96 percent of food deserts are in urban areas).

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Grocery delivery is also becoming more and more accessible specifically for low-income shoppers. SNAP, the federal food assistance program for low-income people, once known as food stamps, launched SNAP online as a pilot program in 2019, with retailers including Amazon, Safeway, and Walmart accepting SNAP recipients’ electronic benefits transfer (EBT) cards online in a handful of states. The USDA accelerated the program in response to the pandemic in 2020, as online shopping became a way to avoid a potentially deadly Covid infection. Only 15 states were slated to participate in the pilot in 2020; instead nearly every state was accepting EBT online by August 2020.

SNAP recipients seized on the SNAP online program during the pandemic, when its use increased exponentially. In February 2020, the earliest month data was available, about $3 million of SNAP benefits were spent online. By the end of 2020, SNAP recipients had redeemed $1.5 billion online.

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This high rate of use came despite big barriers in the way of online shopping, like the delivery fees that most services charge, concern about the quality of food shoppers didn’t pick out themselves, and the relatively few stores that accepted online EBT payments in 2020. That $1.5 billion represents only about 3 percent of total SNAP spending for 2020 (2021 data are not yet available), but usage is expected to grow as more and more online retailers are approved to accept SNAP and the tech that supports using EBT online improves, for instance by clearly showing what items are SNAP-eligible. Internet access and literacy are a barrier for some shoppers, but not as many as you might think: more than 75 percent of low-income people, for instance, already own smartphones.

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While there is no data yet on how many SNAP recipients living in areas designated food deserts are using their benefits online, most should be able to do so in the near future as options for using EBT for grocery delivery continue to expand.

Third-party apps including Instacart, Forage, and Rosie are extending the range of retailers that accept SNAP online for delivery services. Forage is a payment processing service developed specifically to allow retailers to accept EBT online, making it possible for smaller grocers, which don’t have the resources to build out their own systems for processing EBT, to accept SNAP benefits online. Forage recently announced a partnership with online grocer Farmstead, for instance, to allow the retailer to accept EBT payments. The Rosie app, which is similar to Instacart, caters to shoppers who use local and smaller independent grocers. And Instacart has even waived their delivery fees (albeit temporarily) for people paying with their SNAP benefits.

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Grocery delivery eliminates the question of food deserts because it makes the distance to the grocery store irrelevant. It may offer other benefits as well. SNAP recipients can shop the gamut of grocery stores, from superstores to local stores to specialty markets, without worrying about travel time or how they’ll get to the store. They’ll know how much their bill will be before they check out and can apply coupons to their purchases with a click. And they can opt to order online and pick up in person to avoid delivery fees on smaller orders.

However, it’s possible that eating habits won’t change a bit because of this new ease of access for people using SNAP. Research has long indicated that on the whole, low-income neighborhoods never actually had a shortage of grocery stores. In fact, according to the USDA, low-income people living in cities “are closer to supermarkets than moderate-and high-income people and areas.” Lack of access to the supermarket wasn’t creating the diet-related chronic illnesses that disproportionately affect people living in poverty. That means better access to groceries also won’t solve the problem of disparate rates of diabetes, hypertension and heart disease.

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In the end, it is how much money we have, not how much access we have to the supermarket, that determines our food choices. “When incomes drop and family budgets shrink, food choices shift toward cheaper but more energy-dense foods,” nutritionist Adam Drewnowski has explained. The first foods to go are when money is tight, Drewnowski noted, are high-quality proteins, whole grains, and produce. And SNAP recipients have very little money to work with. Before the pandemic, the average SNAP benefit was $4.25 per person per day. The average benefit increased in October 2021 to $5.45 per person per day, or $1.81 per person per meal.

People with higher incomes will spend three times more than people with lower incomes to purchase foods that are better for them, according to researchers at the National Bureau of Economic Research. And higher household income is associated with better eating habits, like lower consumption of added sugar and eating more whole grains and fruits and vegetables. “Increasing the affordability of foods may be where the greatest impact will lie,” noted researcher Eric Brandt.

And if food can’t be made more affordable, then people need to be given more money to buy it. The millions of dollars being spent on building new stores to help eliminate food deserts would be better spent on boosting SNAP benefits, or at least defraying costs like delivery fees. People clearly no longer need healthy food that is physically close to them—they need the resources to purchase that healthy food for themselves.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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