Online shopping for food assistance programs can improve health equity

Online grocery orders have spiked during the pandemic, but for those who rely on food stamps and assistance programs, online shopping hasn’t really been an option. Fortunately, late last month, California’s food stamps program, CalFresh, began allowing beneficiaries to buy groceries online at participating stores, closing safe food access inequalities. 

Ordering groceries online means safely accessing fresh food without having to expose oneself to the risks of entering a physical grocery store, especially for those who are immunocompromised. Advocates are urging officials to improve online shopping available for pregnant women and families with young children who get benefits through WIC as well. 

WIC is funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and administered by each state as a supplemental nutrition program for low-income pregnant and postpartum women, and children up to age five who meet income criteria. Participants must be at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level (equivalent to an annual income of $47,638 for a family of four). Families that include more children five and under qualify at higher income levels as well.

For women with young children, avoiding potential infection sites, like grocery stores, is critical for their health and safety. Additionally, WIC distribution disproportionately goes to groups already particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 including people of color and low-income families with reduced access to health services. Among recipients, 75 percent are Latino, 12 percent are White, 6.5 percent are African American, 6 percent are Asian, and 0.5 percent are Native American. 

According to May 16 data from the California Department of Public Health, Latinos make up under 40 percent of the state’s population but more than half of COVID-19 cases and close to 40 percent of deaths. Additionally, African Americans account for 6 percent of the population and 5 percent of COVID-19 cases, but 10 percent of deaths.

Some recipients, such as Angelique Schanbeck, are choosing to forgo their benefits rather than risk frequent in-person shopping trips. Offering comprehensive online shopping options for WIC recipients would eliminate forcing women to choose between their health and their nutrition. WIC did make a recent change in California that could help facilitate online shopping by offering a card for use at checkout rather than paper checks, but online suppliers that accept them are not always widely available. 

Shopping online has benefits even beyond avoiding COVID-19. Shopping online eliminates the need for childcare while shopping and reduces the time individuals spend shopping, freeing up more time for other critical activities. Online shopping opportunities for those who rely on food assistance programs could help improve food access equity even after the pandemic.

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