Story at a glance

  • More than 2 million Americans live more than a mile from their closest supermarket, creating barriers to accessing quality food for those for whom the trip is physically, financially or logistically challenging.
  • These areas that are underserved by supermarkets are called food deserts, and new research suggests that grocery stores that deliver orders placed online could ameliorate the issues caused by food deserts.
  • The study’s findings support the expansion of a pilot program that allows people to pay for online groceries and delivery with food stamps.

Online grocery delivery could help those living in food deserts access fresh, healthy foods, according to a new analysisThe results suggest that a pilot program currently allowing people to use food stamps on online grocery delivery services could be on the right track, NPR reports

More than 2 million Americans live more than a mile from their closest supermarket and lack reliable access to a vehicle. For the people in these food deserts, finding a ride, waiting for public transit, walking or biking requires extra time, money and exertion. That can cause problems for those who are older, have a physical disability or are living in poverty. 

The study authors told NPR that food stamps have gotten a bad rap because the food they purchase is often highly processed and unhealthy. They hope that their research can help steer the food stamp program towards improving the diets and health of those in need.

The study used the USDA's Food Access Research Atlas to identify census tracts that contained food deserts in the eight states participating in the food-stamps-for-online-groceries pilot program — Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Oregon and Washington. They then cross referenced the food deserts with delivery ranges of grocery stores that accept food stamps for online orders.

The researchers found that more than 90 percent of the households that qualified for food stamps that were inside an urban food desert were eligible to have their groceries delivered. The findings suggest these online delivery services could improve access to quality foods for a large number of urban American households.

But the study’s results were less encouraging for rural areas. None of the 59 rural census tracts fully qualified for grocery delivery. Thirty percent of the rural census tracts in the study partially qualified, meaning they were able to get groceries delivered in some parts but not others, and 70 percent of the tracts had no grocery stores that would deliver to them. 

Some census tracts only partially qualified because the ZIP codes that grocery stores use to determine their delivery range don’t match up with the census tracts. If a tract contains multiple ZIP codes, some may fall in the delivery range of a supermarket while others in the same tract do not. 

Another issue is that while the food stamps can cover the cost of food in these eight states, they can’t currently pay for the added cost of the delivery itself. But industry experts think grocery stores may simply start folding the cost of delivery into the sticker price of food online — making it cheaper to buy in person but potentially allowing food stamps to cover the whole cost. 

At least one survey from 2017 suggests that many think the delivery service is worth paying extra: 51 percent of food stamp recipients said they were “completely likely” to purchase groceries online for pickup or delivery regardless of added fees. The top three reasons for ordering online were convenience, the ability to pay for groceries without others seeing that they were using food stamps and, for parents, avoiding the task of managing their children in the store during the shopping trip.

The eight-state pilot program is set to run until April 2021 when it will undergo an evaluation. The USDA hopes to expand the program to the entire U.S., a move this study suggests could increase access to quality food for millions of Americans.

Published on Dec 19, 2019