Restrictions on public gatherings continue to expand in the midst of COVID-19’s continued increase in cases. Grocery stores are no exceptions. Some stores have set into action restricted shopping hours or restrictions for who can shop at certain times (i.e. seniors only before 7:30 a.m.). This extra time when the doors are closed gives time for workers to stock shelves and sanitize. Nevertheless, grocery stores will remain public gathering places for possible transmission.
This has led many shoppers to go online for their groceries. Grocery delivery platforms like Instacart, Walmart Grocery, and Shipt are seeing record numbers of downloads. But, what about people with no credit who can’t shop online for delivery? They must go to the store to get food. Especially consider those that are elderly, disabled or have chronic illnesses that rely on their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) benefit to make grocery purchases. If they aren’t fortunate to have financial stability or credit to buy online, they must expose themselves to being in public to get food.
The 2014 farm bill has a solution to this problem for individuals that use SNAP – it mandated an online purchase pilot be performed to allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits online. This pilot is occurring in eight states, including New York and Washington, and began in 2019. Unfortunately, the pilot is still far from completion, however this service could benefit the lives of at risk individuals now.
The federal government should consider an immediate extension for SNAP and WIC participants to use their benefits online and cover delivery charges. There may be technologic hurdles to ensure SNAP users can use their benefit online. However, with the uncertainty of how long this virus will last, early action could be important if the virus lingers. One limitation of the farm bill pilot is that it doesn’t offer to pay for delivery. Many times delivery is free after passing a certain threshold, often around $50. However, even if delivery can’t be paid for, just the ability to order online for curbside pickup is helpful to limit public exposure, especially for those that are at greatest risk for morbidities or mortality from COVID-19.
In our recent study we found that about 90 percent of individuals that live in food deserts in these eight pilot states could receive home delivery of their groceries. In our current reality where going into public spaces puts people at risk, delivery is a service that could be helpful more than ever before.
My hope is that in these unprecedented times that we will find ways to make life better that will extend beyond the severe hardships that the virus will cause. Expanding grocery delivery and online ordering to SNAP users is one way that this can happen. Make grocery delivery available to everyone, it might save someone’s life.
Eric J. Brandt, MD, is a cardiologist and lipidologist at the Yale School of Medicine/Yale New Haven Hospital. He is National Clinician Scholar at the Yale University School of Medicine.