State officials are encouraging grocery stores to join a pilot program to allow low-income Vermonters to buy their groceries online, using SNAP — the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
As the state tightens Covid restrictions, low-income Vermonters say more online and delivery options are urgently needed at a time when it’s vital to avoid unnecessary contact. But getting grocery stores to participate in the complex, federally mandated process has been slow.
Vermont approved the federal pilot program in May, but Amazon and Walmart have been the only retailers to sign up for it so far. But those companies alone don’t meet the needs of all Vermonters who depend on SNAP.
Now, 3Squares Vermont has reached out to Hannaford Supermarkets, trying to interest the grocery store chain in signing up.
3Squares is Vermont’s name for the state program that handles SNAP. Leslie Wisdom, director of 3Squares Vermont, said Hannaford has been responsive and “We are talking with Hannaford about their options. I don’t know their capacity to join the online pilot. Those conversations are very early on.”
Wisdom said the process of becoming an approved online retailer is complicated and subject to strict federal requirements, according to the Food and Nutrition Service.
SNAP is a permanent program funded by the federal government. Vermonters who qualify receive an EBT card — electronic benefits transfer. For people using the SNAP program, the card is then loaded on a monthly basis with money for groceries that can be used at grocery stores or farmers markets.
Hunger experts in Vermont, like John Sayles of the Vermont Foodbank and Anore Horton of Hunger Free Vermont, agree that SNAP is one of the best ways to address hunger in the state. It allows consumers to choose the products that work best for them, and buy them in a dignified way. They have identified that as a crucial resource during the pandemic, when levels of food insecurity have reached the highest rate in a decade.
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Before the pandemic, one in 10 Vermonters were food insecure; now as many as one in four Vermonters are struggling to obtain nutritional food. At the beginning of the pandemic, there was a dramatic increase in Vermont households using SNAP to pay for food.
Wisdom described new applications surging from the pre-pandemic numbers of 500-700 applications per week to as many as 1,000-1,300 in the spring. Now, the numbers are more steady at around 700-800 per week.
“Applications went down when there was decreased unemployment,” said Wisdom, and she expects another spike if unemployment surges again.
The program was expanded at the onset of the pandemic, so that all households and individuals would be eligible for the maximum benefit the program can offer. That expansion, tied to the national and statewide state of emergency, is still in effect. And now, Vermont legislation has allocated an additional $6.54 million of state money for a one-time benefit for families already at the maximum benefit.
The Vermont Legislature “recognized that people at the maximum benefit are some of our most vulnerable, and they weren’t getting the extra help,” Wisdom said, but “that benefit is going out before the end of the calendar year.”
But extra money for groceries won’t help if people can’t spend it in a safe way. Some Vermonters can’t leave their homes or are in quarantine. The online purchasing pilot can solve some of these problems. While it wasn’t designed to respond to the pandemic specifically, “it has been beneficial throughout Covid,” Wisdom said.
Still, work remains to be done. “It doesn’t help everyone,” Wisdom said. “How is it actually working for real people in Vermont if Amazon and Walmart aren’t the best options for them?”
‘I find myself sometimes rationing food’
One Vermont woman who uses SNAP to buy groceries is worried about how she will obtain food in the winter. Anna, who lives in Lamoille County, asked not to be further identified in this report.
She said many people are in her situation, but are hesitant to come forward because a stigma surrounds using food assistance programs.
“We’re really limited on food access, especially produce,” Anna said. While farm stands filled this gap in the summer, now they are closing for the winter, leaving a hole that Anna doesn’t know how she will fill.
Her local Hannaford store offers pickup only through a company called Instacart, which doesn’t accept EBT. Instacart has joined the online purchasing pilot in Georgia through a partnership with ALDI, but that hasn’t happened in Vermont. Anna hopes the state’s conversations with Hannaford are promising.
In the meantime, “it’s pretty frustrating,” Anna said. “If I try to use Instacart to get groceries, I can’t pay with my EBT card, so I basically have no access because my total food budget is from my EBT card.”
With Covid cases spiking in Vermont and policies around the pandemic tightening, the demand for contact-free grocery shopping is likely to grow. But now Vermonters like Anna face an impossible choice between healthy, affordable food and minimizing exposure.
The CDC has published studies illustrating the link between Covid outbreaks and social vulnerability, due to factors like poverty. In Vermont, a UVM survey points to the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on lower-income Vermonters. So the Vermonters who arguably need curbside pickup and healthy food the most are also those having the most difficulty obtaining them.
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“Yesterday I kind of got into a panic when I realized that the farm stand was closed and I wished I had stocked up,” said Anna, who relies on produce for her vegan diet. “My overall stress level has certainly increased.”
Anna explained that Amazon doesn’t sell produce, and its products are expensive or require ordering in large quantities, all of which eats up a set EBT balance too quickly. While Walmart does carry some of the products Anna uses, it doesn’t offer delivery, and the closest pickup is in Bennington, a prohibitively far drive from Lamoille County.
In Vermont, nine Hannaford supermarkets offer curbside pickup through a program called Hannaford To Go. But not all stores offer this service, and Anna said the nearest curbside pickup is over an hour drive from where she lives, and an impossible drive in the winter.
“Prior to Covid, food was definitely not an issue for me,” Anna said. “But since Covid, I can’t get to the grocery stores, so it’s really limiting and it’s frustrating and costs me a lot more out of pocket as far as gas and having to pay for groceries, not using my EBT card. It’s putting me in a hole financially.”
“I find myself sometimes rationing food,” she wrote in an email, “and frequently am not able to eat three healthy meals a day.”
Food box programs like Farmers to Families have been designed to help Vermonters who are struggling with food insecurity, but they don’t give individuals any choice about the produce or amount they receive.
“I didn’t try it because my thinking was, I have funds to use. A lot of people don’t. There’s so much in those boxes that I wouldn’t use and I have no one to give it to, so it seems like I would waste it,” Anna said. The funds she’s talking about are from the SNAP program. On average, Vermont families receive $235 per household; for a senior citizen living alone, the average is $163 per month.
Everyone Eats is another program where restaurant meals are provided free of charge to individuals who have been impacted by Covid.
Stringent requirements, slow process
While these relief programs are slated to end in December, SNAP isn’t going anywhere. But changes due to the pandemic happen rapidly; SNAP’s response is slow, laborious and bureaucratic to make available essential options like curbside pickup and delivery.
Luciana DiRuocco is the executive staff assistant and public information officer at the Department for Children and Families, where the 3Squares program is housed. “There are stringent stocking and online purchasing system requirements to qualify to be an approved retailer per the federal Food and Nutrition Service,” she wrote in an email to VTDigger.
Because the USDA Food and Nutrition Service oversees the SNAP program, it can also determine where SNAP funds can be spent.
DiRuocco confirmed that the DCF has reached out to Hannaford, which uses Instacart, “a few times to see if they would be interested in becoming an approved retailer.” While Hannaford accepts EBT for in-store purchases, Instacart doesn’t currently take it for delivery orders placed online.
The department has also asked for help from Sen. Bernie Sanders’ office “to get in contact with Hannaford’s to help us interest them in joining the pilot.”
Beyond Hannaford, the state is contacting other local retailers, too, in hopes they can use the same wireless EBT terminals that allowed farm stands and farmers markets to accept EBT/SNAP in the summer and fall.
DiRuocco said the state has reached out to the Vermont Retail and Grocers Association, the Farm to Plate Network, and a retailer newsletter, letting retailers know they can use wireless EBT machines to offer curbside pickup or home delivery.
State Rep. David Yacovone, D-Morrisville, said this issue has been on his radar as well. One constituent asked for help late last week, and he suspects that others are probably in a similar situation.
“There’s many others who cannot or do not want to go out publicly to get their groceries and put themselves at risk,” he said. Even before the pandemic, food insecurity was a serious problem in Yacovone’s county. He said that in the year before the pandemic, 28% of Morrisville residents reported having to go to the local food shelf to make ends meet.
Yacovone pointed to the “twin problems” of health care and poverty, and called the EBT problem a “systems issue.”
“I’m sure this is going on all over the state,” said Yacovone. He knows the Department for Children and Families is working toward solutions, and “I’m confident we’ll figure it out.”
Vermonters are counting on a change, so they won’t have to decide between healthy food and respecting the conditions of quarantine, as cases in the state continue to set new records.
“Hopefully some changes will be made so more folks can have access to healthy food,” Anna wrote.