Yet another hurdle may be geographic. While many tend to associate federal food assistance with urban poverty, the use of food stamps in rural communities has been growing steadily in recent years. As Rachel Cernansky at Civil Eats noted in 2014, enrollment among Americans eligible for SNAP was 13 percent higher in rural areas than in urban ones. This disparity no doubt affects how and particularly where SNAP benefits are spent; according to the Omaha World-Herald, “Slightly more than half of all SNAP dollars are spent at superstores like Walmart, which is not part of the pilot program.”
And aside from the logistical challenges, once unveiled, the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot seems poised to face political opposition from associations representing brick-and-mortar stores—who fear the program will cut into their margins. Following the reveal of the states participating in the pilot program, local retailers that might be affected quickly condemned the USDA initiative. “With supermarkets disappearing from neighborhoods in all five boroughs, this pilot program will only accelerate the trend,” New York Association of Grocery Stores spokesman Brad Gerstman said in a statement. Meanwhile, in Annapolis, Cailey Locklair Tolle, the head of the Maryland Retailers Association, told the Baltimore Sun that she had received several calls from businesses about the program. “Any time you tinker with any part of the revenue for a grocery store, you can literally send them in the red very quickly,” she said.
Despite these obstacles, the biggest challenge to the pilot program may come from the intended participants, whose habits may be difficult to change. A 2012 RAND study shed some light on the preconception that access to healthier food, particularly fruits and vegetables, materially translates into better diets. The study found limited compelling links between food environment and food consumption, meaning that the easier availability of quality foods may not trump consumer preferences for junk. And as I noted last month, large food companies have also sought to step into this breach, offering more products with less fat and sodium, only to find that they sell poorly. Online, people are still likely to want what they’ve always wanted.