More than 1.86 million Pennsylvanians who receive federal food assistance may soon be able to get groceries delivered to their doors, the state’s human services chief confirmed Tuesday.
Officials in the state Department of Human Services said Pennsylvania has been accepted into a federal pilot program that allows people enrolled in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to use their monthly benefits allowance to pay for groceries online.
Human Services Secretary Teresa Miller told reporters Tuesday that the state is still finalizing a timeline to roll out the program, after receiving word late Monday that federal regulators accepted their application to join.
When it takes effect, SNAP recipients will be able to use their federal dollars to access the same delivery services that have been a lifeline for Pennsylvanians during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Pennsylvania officials have touted grocery delivery services as a way to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Grocery stores have been deemed an essential service since March. But Gov. Tom Wolf has urged stores to encourage customers to use delivery services and curbside pickup options to minimize crowding in stores.
Those services have largely remained out of reach to Pennsylvanians who receive SNAP, since federal rules prohibit them from using their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards to pay for online orders.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture launched an online purchasing program for SNAP last year, but only 14 states and Washington, D.C. are currently enrolled, according to The Markup, a non-profit investigative news site that covers technology.
As demand for delivery services surged this spring, some Pennsylvania retailers allowed customers to place orders online and pay for them with their EBT cards during a curb-side pickup. Those customers will be able to pay for merchandise online when the state’s new SNAP rules take effect.
“The goal is to eliminate the need for a client to have to go into a store,” Department of Human Services deputy secretary Lisa Watson said Tuesday.
Though the program answers the calls of SNAP customers and their advocates, there are some catches.
First, SNAP customers will only be able to have groceries delivered from Walmart, Amazon, and Shop-Rite, a grocery chain with locations primarily in south-eastern Pennsylvania, Watson said. Those are the Pennsylvania retailers that got approval from federal regulators to participate in the pilot program.
Second, federal rules still prohibit customers from using SNAP dollars to pay for delivery fees, tips and other service charges. Watson said SNAP customers in Pennsylvania will have to pay out of pocket for those charges, which can be hefty.
Watson said the Department of Human Services has been talking with advocates about ways to minimize delivery costs for SNAP recipients.
Pennsylvania has seen its SNAP enrollments grow by 7 percent since February, as more than 123,000 people applied for food assistance, Miller said Tuesday.
Miller said state officials braced for the COVID-19 pandemic ravaged labor markets, leading nearly 2 million Pennsylvanians to seek unemployment insurance.