Online grocery ordering still unavailable for many vulnerable to COVID-19

As many people shift to buying groceries online to avoid exposure to COVID-19, some of the nation’s poorest women, infants and children are not able to afford this luxury.

CalFresh, California’s food stamp program -- also called SNAP -- can be used to order groceries online through Amazon or Walmart. But a similar food assitance program that is targeted to helping mothers and children -- the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) -- still requires that recipients buy groceries in-person, in front of a cashier during the pandemic.

For many low-income mothers using WIC, ordering groceries online is not an option. For those who are at-risk for the virus, or have family members who are, it’s also potentially dangerous, but required, to go to the store. It’s a risk, that those who can afford food need not take.

“Families who are often lower income, and relying on these benefits are facing a lot of struggles with accessing food -- the ability to have the funds to purchase food is a significant one,” said Melissa Cannon, a senior advocate at California Food Policy Advocates. “These families still face challenges that others might not. They might not have a car to get to the grocery store, they might rely on public transportation to get to a local market. Their options might be a little more limited in where they can access food.”

Angelique Schanbeck, a mother of three who lives in Olivehurst, said that when she found out that SNAP had online ordering, she was hopeful about being able to order with WIC online. She remembered thinking, “they're going to set it up like SNAP has, and we'll be good to go. We can order online, like this is going to be a game changer.”

She said that WIC’s update within the past year, from using paper checks to debit cards, made her hopeful that she’d be able to use the card online.

“And then we find out no, it's not going to be the same,” Schanbeck said. “And it makes no sense. Absolutely no sense. It's a card. How can we not figure this out?”

Lily Marquez, a San Francisco mother of two who uses WIC, echoed this concern.

She said that she is frustrated with her inability to buy food online through WIC, especially when she knows that it’s possible through SNAP, and for those who can afford groceries otherwise.

“I cannot wrap my mind about it,” Marquez said. “Technology is rapidly growing. So why is it so hard to follow that best practice and get on board with it?”

Marquez said that when she has been shopping recently, she said that it’s frustrating to see the limited selection of WIC-approved foods wiped out. She said it makes her carefully planned trips to the store even more stressful.

“I can’t find bread right now,” she said. “It’s like, really?”

Schanbeck described rushing to the grocery store to get there when it opens, to ensure that WIC-approved foods will be in stock for her family.

“A lot of the times there's just not our WIC foods, the foods that we can only buy are very limited,” Schanbeck said. “They have opened it up a little bit, but we're still facing issues...three kids, it's hard to get out right when that grocery store opens. So, a lot of the times, by the time I get to the bread section, there's just no bread.”

Schanbeck said that on a few occasions, she bought food online using her own money, and still bought the same food she purchases on WIC.

“As much free time technically as we have right now, it's still really rough putting my children in the car,” she said. “My oldest is autistic, so when we go in the car, she automatically assumes we're going somewhere to play, or we're going to school, and so it kind of turns into a meltdown.”

Cannon said that systemic problems with access to food in low-income communities are not challenged with the current way WIC is structured.

“We know that most individuals who are low income tend to be concentrated in certain neighborhoods, and those low income neighborhoods tend to not have as great of access to food options, in terms of grocery stores or corner stores,” Cannon said. “And given that not every retailer participates in the WIC program, their options in terms of where they can access food are going to be a little bit more limited anyway.”

Marquez said that she believes the program’s focus on women and children makes the need for fully accessible food very urgent.

“These benefits are for women and children, the most vulnerable people,” she said. “I mean, women have to be healthy and in order to take care of the children, and the children are vulnerable already to so many things.”

Critics charge that online order could enable fraudulent purchases. 

"Buying online won't be much different than from actually physically going to the store if they have the right items that are appropriate for the program," Marquez said. 

Claribel Chavez, a Food Connection Specialist at Silicon Valley’s Second Harvest Food Bank, fields calls from a food help hotline, and assists people in getting food, as well as enrolling them in CalFresh. She said that many people who are enrolling for CalFresh for the first time are excited that they can use the benefits to buy food online.

For some people, including seniors, who must learn to use the online ordering mechanisms, it’s a small barrier, relative to the risk of COVID-19.

“They rather would try to struggle making an online order than putting their lives at risk,” Chavez said.

Cannon said that the ability to order food online right now is essential for the safety and vitality of newly unemployed people, low-income families and elderly and disabled folks.

“Individuals who are participating in SNAP are largely working,” she said.” They’re mostly families who have multiple jobs and children. And over time, as society has changed, the program also needs to change. We are seeing a greater rollout of online purchasing, and so that is something that should be available to all families, not just individuals who have the ability to pay for food.”

Getting people food through SNAP not only benefits food insecure people, but also the economy. A recent analysis from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities determined that one dollar in SNAP benefits generates $1.70 in economic activity.

Cannon said that she hopes the USDA will use their recently Congress-granted authority to waive regulations that “are standing in the way of people getting access to food during the pandemic.” She said that she also hopes Amazon and Walmart will remove all delivery fees for online ordering.

“For those families, when it comes to going to a grocery store that accepts WIC, going to a local retailer that accepts WIC, they are putting themselves often at greater risk in terms of exposure to COVID-19 because they are just more likely to have to go through some obstacles,” she said.