One in five residents in Baltimore, and one in three Black residents, lives in food deserts — areas where people face systemic barriers to accessing affordable and healthy foods. It’s a problem that has long evaded effective policy solutions. But the rapidly evolving technology of e-commerce platforms offers a new way to bring food justice and security to structurally marginalized communities across the country.
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) has addressed food deserts through its Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) program to bring retail grocery locations to food deserts. Unfortunately, access to nutritious food is often a symptom of concentrated poverty — one that adding brick-and-mortar stores does not automatically fix.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, distributes benefits to over 40 million people every month, providing funds to low-income families to purchase groceries. SNAP participation has been linked with reductions in poverty, reduced maternal mortality rates, and improved nutrition and health. But the support of SNAP alone can’t solve the problem of recipients who are still unable to access grocery stores. In urban areas, a lack of reliable public transportation is one of the main barriers to accessing healthy food. Further, adding more grocery stores has proved unsuccessful in the past as stores in these areas struggle to remain open.
The USDA has failed to capture the lived experiences of the public in its response to the problem of food deserts. An area qualifies as a food desert under the USDA when there is a poverty rate of 20 percent or greater, and at least 33 percent of the population lives more than one mile from a grocery store.
A John Hopkins study found that residents will typically not walk further than a quarter of a mile if they have to carry groceries. Furthermore, the study noted that the USDA’s analysis does not address transportation issues. In Baltimore, approximately 30 percent of residents lack access to a vehicle. Unlike the nearby cities of Washington D.C., or Philadelphia, Baltimore does not have a robust metro system. A Baltimore resident without access to a vehicle would have to pay for a ride share service, take the bus, or walk — all options that could prove burdensome when carrying bags of groceries.
To overcome these entrenched problems, the USDA is harnessing a popular technology that will enable it to better meet the needs of program participants. This past September, Uber announced that it will partner with the USDA through its “Uber Eats” program to accept SNAP’s Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) payments to deliver groceries. This is encouraging to see, as the USDA’s use of outdated technology has previously hindered its ability to deliver services to the public efficiently.
For example, even though online delivery services for groceries have been available for decades, Congress only authorized a pilot program to test the use of online ordering of groceries using SNAP benefits in 2014.
The spread of COVID-19 provided a wake-up call for government programs that were late to incorporate new technologies. In 2020, six years after the pilot program was launched, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) had only authorized 13 retailers in the entire country. During the pandemic, many vulnerable recipients of food assistance programs found themselves faced with a choice: social distance and be unable to access their federal benefits or go to the grocery store in person and risk exposure.
SNAP users began urging the USDA to modernize the program by allowing online grocery ordering with SNAP benefits. In response, USDA ramped up the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot (OPP) across the United States. By 2021, FNS increased authorization of retailers to 122, a nine-fold increase in the span of a single year.
Uber stated in a press release that this new partnership will help reduce barriers to fresh food for people in food deserts, and an increased ability for SNAP recipients to use their benefits for online ordering and delivery services is a major step forward in addressing the problem. However, there’s more to be done if the USDA is looking to bring greater equity to its policies on food insecurity — for instance, expanding enrollment to reflect variations in cost of living across the country, and eliminating restrictions on eligibility based on previous convictions, citizenship, or work requirements.
Increasing equitable access to federal resources and partnering with other entities to utilize existing technologies should be the first step of several if the federal government wants to address food insecurity in Baltimore and around the country effectively.