The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, accounts for about 8% of food bought by U.S. households — it’s not only a lifeline for struggling Americans but also an important source of revenue for retailers, particularly those in areas where a larger percentage of the shoppers qualify for help.

So it matters a lot which stores accept SNAP benefits, not only for the individuals who use the benefits but also for the economic health of the communities in which they live.

It’s unfortunate, then, that in the latest example of program not fitting quite right in rural areas, the rapidly expanding SNAP online purchasing project from the U.S. Department of Agriculture is so dominated by the two largest retailers: Amazon and Walmart.

Since January, the pilot stage of the project has spread from two states to 46 and Washington, D.C. (Maine is not one of them, though SNAP benefits can be used for online ordering with curbside pickup at many stores.)

In all but seven of those states, Amazon and Walmart are the only retailers approved for the pilot project.

The lack of options forces SNAP recipients who want to order online — increasingly popular during the COVID pandemic — to hand over their money to a national retailer rather than their local store. It’s an inconvenience to them, it hurts their local retailer, who often doesn’t have the resources to join the online program, and it takes money out of their community.

For areas of high poverty, particularly rural ones, which tend to have both more people using SNAP benefits and more independent stores, that means a lot of crucial resources are heading out of town.

And it’s not the only part of the SNAP program coming up short in rural areas. The USDA lists many rural areas as “food deserts” — low-income census tracts where one-third of the population lives at least 10 miles from a grocery store. That includes large sections of western, northern and Downeast Maine, plus small pockets sprinkled elsewhere around the state.

The distance and sparse population makes regular delivery of groceries logistically and financially difficult. The same conditions mean it can be costly for people just to get to the store. What’s more, both shoppers and stores often still use older technology that makes online shopping difficult.

Legislation introduced in Congress would help. A Senate bill and its companion in the House would extend online SNAP purchasing to all states and support and assist independent retailers in joining the program.

There also needs to be, for many reasons beyond online grocery shopping, major investments in rural internet infrastructure so that all households in those areas can participate in online activities and commerce as fully as people in cities and the suburbs.

Ultimately, improving the SNAP program in rural areas is about fairness in treatment and opportunity. The SNAP program is designed to allow participants to use their food dollars in the same way as everyone else, which lets them build their own diet while supporting local stores.

In doing so, we allow for healthier people — and healthier communities.


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