Ilhan Omar Bill Would Expand SNAP Benefits to Allow Online Grocery Shopping in Wake of Coronavirus

Democratic Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar wants to introduce the SNAP Online Purchasing Flexibility Act, a bill that would allow recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to purchase groceries online so they can minimize their possible exposure to coronavirus in public.

Over 42 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, and even more have applied to the program since the start of the coronavirus epidemic, rising its costs from $4.5 billion to $6.5 billion per month.

Despite that, the $484 billion bill recently passed by Congress contains no additional funding for SNAP. On top of that, most current recipients of SNAP benefits are required to purchase groceries inside of stores, increasing their chances of contracting Covid-19.

Although the 2014 Farm Bill authorized the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to allow SNAP recipients to purchase groceries online in Alabama, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, Oregon and Washington, Omar's bill would allow recipients to do so in all 50 states.

"The Secretary of Agriculture has the authority to determine which states may participate in the program, yet as of now, USDA allows only 8 states to participate, leaving millions of vulnerable individuals behind." Omar said in a statement.

"We shouldn't be picking and choosing which families can and cannot get to order food online," she said.

Democratic Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar
Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) participates in a panel discussion during the Muslim Collective For Equitable Democracy Conference and Presidential Forum at the The National Housing Center July 23, 2019 in Washington, DC. Chip Somodevilla/Getty

The bill could prove especially beneficial to older and vulnerable citizens susceptible to the coronavirus's lethality. But even so, Omar's plan could run into several technical snags.

When the 2014 Farm Bill expanded online purchases for SNAP recipients, the program required online retailers to update their security systems to add extra steps of payer verification to prevent fraud or improper payments, according to Politico.

SNAP users could also only shop at stores with websites that were already set up to process payments through Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards. The EBT cards are like debit cards that allow SNAP recipients to purchase food at local stores.

The USDA had to vet any retailers who wanted to process EBT payments, and the time required for vetting prolonged the implementation of the program. As a result, many SNAP recipients could only purchase food through Amazon and Walmart since their websites were already set up to process EBT cards.

Also, SNAP benefits don't cover the costs of delivery or service fees. Democratic Pennsylvania Senator Bob Casey has introduced a bill that would authorize $500 million in federal funds that states could use to reimburse retailers for food deliveries to SNAP recipients. Casey's bill would also let grocery stores to accept EBT card payments at recipients' homes.

Newsweek has reached out to Rep. Omar's office for comment. The office hadn't responded by the time of publication.