David Hensel, a single father of six and a food stamp recipient, has cut back on the number of trips he makes to the grocery store each week. He also wears gloves and a mask each time he goes.
Still, he worries.
“Every time you walk out of your house and go somewhere, the potential of bringing it back is there again," said Hensel, 57, of the West Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago.
Being able to order groceries online and have them delivered would mean he could avoid that risk, he said. But that’s not an option.
Online grocery delivery has become vital for many in Illinois who are trying to stay home during the coronavirus outbreak. But food stamp recipients — who advocates say are at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 — can’t shop that way.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which runs the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, has long required customers using those benefits to pay for purchases at the time and place of sale.
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Select retailers, such as Walmart, allow recipients to shop online and pay for their orders using SNAP benefits when they pick them up. Others, like Schwan’s, allow online shopping and take SNAP payment when they deliver the order.
But food stamps can’t be used to pay for groceries online and have them delivered.
Jeremy Rosen, director of economic justice at the Chicago-based Shriver Center on Poverty Law, would like to see that changed.
“Every message you hear from the government and every other public official is that we want people to be out and about as little as possible right now,” Rosen said. Allowing online grocery shopping would be crucial for recipients to stay home, he said.
Retailers in six states started accepting SNAP payments online as part of a pilot program last year. Illinois is not involved in the program, but the state’s Department of Human Services is working with the federal government on a plan to make online grocery delivery possible for SNAP recipients in the state.
“We are still in the process of understanding how long the implementation of the Online Shopping program will take," said Patrick Laughlin, a spokesman for Illinois’ Human Services department. “We are trying to expedite this process as much as possible in light of COVID-19 and social distancing recommendations.”
Making changes to a program as far-reaching as SNAP takes time, said Angela Odoms-Young, associate professor of kinesiology and nutrition at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
More than 37 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, according to USDA data. Roughly 1.8 million of them are Illinois residents.
“We can’t have a pandemic and then all of a sudden we change in a matter of days," Odoms-Young said. “USDA is working on it, and that is really all we can ask.”
Odoms-Young said the inability to have groceries delivered is one of the many inequities SNAP recipients face, especially during a pandemic.
Many recipients work in low-wage jobs that can’t be done remotely, she said. They might have been laid off as businesses shut down after the state issued a stay-at-home order. Or maybe they work at an essential business, like a grocery store or health care facility, and have been exposing themselves to the virus at work, she said.
“Families that are low-income or living on the margins ... continue to be at risk, because they need to work," Odoms-Young said. "They don’t have the benefits of working at home.”
More than 450,000 Illinois households are set to receive additional SNAP benefits to help buy food during the coronavirus pandemic. The increased benefits are a result of the federal Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which gives states the option to provide SNAP households with the maximum allotment.
The extra help is needed now more than ever, said Dr. Monica Peek, associate professor of medicine at University of Chicago and a member of the Greater Chicago Food Depository’s board of directors.
Not only has the coronavirus pandemic made trips to the grocery scary, but it has increased food insecurity. The Greater Chicago Food Depository has seen an influx of new clients, as schools have closed and thousands of workers have lost their jobs.
“A lot of people need food and just basic things," she said. "(For) people who have been living paycheck to paycheck, this is a disaster, and not just a financial disaster.”