The number of households that used their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits at online grocers increased from 35,000 in March 2020 to 3 million in July 2022. USDA launched an initial pilot of online SNAP shopping in 2019 in the state of New York, but due to the pandemic, rapidly expanded the program to 46 states and the District of Columbia by the end of 2020. Yet, researchers and policymakers are still uncovering the evolving implications of online grocery shopping on food access, nutrition, rural-urban differences, and choice. Recent studies suggest that consumers may make different choices willingly or unknowingly when shopping online. Online shopping environments differ by the accessibility of healthy foods and nutrition information. Some studies suggest consumers can make healthier food purchases online. However, online consumers may face greater costs. The White House Conference on Hunger Nutrition, and Health and USDA noted that online grocers could support underserved consumers’ food access. Thus, the USDA is expanding the availability of SNAP purchases online.
The persistent digital divide of rural and low-income households potentially undermines the USDA’s efforts. In addition, computer algorithms shape the food environment, limiting consumers’ perceived and actual autonomy online. Some studies suggest these algorithms may have unintended consequences due to poor design that negatively alter choices, especially for underserved consumers. The conflicting literature highlights the need for further study of the implications of the rapid expansion of USDA SNAP online programming. We propose a mixed-methods study to evaluate consumers’ experiences and tradeoffs when grocery shopping online. Our findings will provide policy recommendations that support healthy food choices and consumer protections, especially for online SNAP purchases.
Our long-range goal is to inform USDA policies for and practices of online grocery stores, given the economic, social, and ethical effects on consumers and food security. The core objective of this project is to identify leverage points to promote healthy food choices for SNAP-eligible participants in online grocery stores, given the barriers and tradeoffs these consumers face. We hypothesize that SNAP-eligible participants face distinct barriers, environments, and tradeoffs that affect their capacity to profit fully from online grocery stores. Our preliminary evidence suggests that grocers can use online environments to nudge healthful food choices but may not implement such policies without a profit motive. We also learned that SNAP participants and administrators found that expanding SNAP to online grocers did not reach all beneficiaries. Thus, we propose exploring the experiences of SNAP participants and administrators with SNAP online to develop recommendations for the program. We will test alternative presentations of nutrition information to encourage healthy food choices and interrogate tradeoffs consumers are willing to make to benefit from the online environment. Our findings will inform policy recommendations grounded in ethical analyses that center on underserved people given market contexts.
- Interrogate the implementation of the online EBT SNAP expansion for participants, administrators, and implementers. This objective is to understand how or if online grocery stores systematically exclude or limit access to consumers from low-income or rural households, even with the USDA expansion of SNAP online.
- Evaluate how nutrition visualization shapes consumer behavior online. This objective will assess how to leverage the dynamic environment of online grocers to nudge healthy food choices, particularly for SNAP-eligible participants.
- Test consumer response to social and economic implications of online grocers. Informed by the first two objectives and academic and industry literature, we will assess the tradeoffs consumers make to attain the benefits of online grocery shopping, given that online grocery stores collect data and shape choices.
Duke World Food Policy Center
- Norbert Wilson
Duke Divinity School
- Wylin Wilson
- Ab Mosca
- Remco Chang
University of Chicago
- Carolyn Barnes