SNAP is a blessing for vulnerable Oregonians — if they can use it

As COVID-19 keeps some folks at home, grocery delivery and pickup should be available to people who receive food benefits

Published in Street Roots, September 18, 2020

I’ve got a dilemma shared by thousands of poor, senior and disabled Oregonians.

Michael Hopcroft

Michael Hopcroft

Like many Oregonians with a disability, I receive SNAP benefits. You may remember them as “food stamps,” but there are no physical coupons anymore. Instead, funds are stored on a debit card. Only the state government can deposit funds into the card, and there are only certain things the card can be used for. It can be used to pay for groceries, but with restrictions — no hot food, no alcohol or tobacco, no non-food items like toilet paper or over-the-counter medicines. And the SNAP card must be used in person.

By that I mean it is a crime for anyone to use someone else’s card.

In normal times, this is a very good thing. It protects against fraud. However, these are not normal times.

It’s not safe for people who are disabled to shop at grocery stores that only casually enforce mask policies, or not at all. This is more true for people who are older. Some people can afford grocery delivery, but SNAP funds can be used only in person. And SNAP cannot be used for delivery.

This means to get food, people who would be most harmed by COVID-19 will be in contact with people who refuse to wear masks.

The last place most SNAP recipients should go in a pandemic is a supermarket full of people who can’t be bothered to use a face mask properly, whose management is unwilling or unable to enforce the restrictions on masking and social distancing. Worse, even if it were a good idea to go, public transit is an even worse option if you want to avoid infection because in my experience, a very large portion of riders flouts the mask requirement by either not wearing masks or wearing their masks improperly in ways that make them useless.

There is an obvious solution: Make delivery and pickup as available to SNAP recipients as to everyone else. Practically, though, that’s not so easy, because unlike a debit or credit card, Oregon Trail cards cannot be used online or over the phone. You can’t go on the web, fill an online cart with the groceries you need, set a delivery window, and then pay using your benefits because stores won’t take your card unless you physically use it in person at the checkout stand.

It doesn’t have to be that complicated. Like debit cards, Oregon Trail cards are PIN protected. You enter a four-digit number of your choice into the payment device that takes people’s debit and credit cards. Right now, that only works in person, but the technology is there to adapt it to delivery or pickup orders. Credit and debit cards have a security code on the card, a CCV, which enables the people you are paying to verify that this is in fact your card and not somebody who’s stolen your number. This is good but is, if anything, less secure than a PIN because the number is actually printed on the physical card. PINs are not.

And at least one company has figured out how to do it. Unfortunately, that company is Amazon. The delivery service through them is decent, but it comes with an ethical cost. Amazon, as we all know, is terrible toward its workers. It also appears to be striving to get the small grocers that can’t afford to provide delivery out of its way. These grocers are important to poorer neighborhoods with limited access to groceries, meaning feeding people in those neighborhoods becomes more difficult after the pandemic dies down.

Eds. Note – further testing by Michael Hopcroft and others of Amazon’s EBT food delivery service found constant cancellations of orders by Amazon during the month of September 2020. Neither food nor service was available.

As we as a society continue to adjust to life in relative isolation, our increasingly online world is leaving our most vulnerable people behind. In a case like this, where everyone needs to eat, it places an unnecessary burden on the most vulnerable.

Supermarket chains can fix this easily and still get their money. So why haven’t they?

Michael Hopcroft is a board member of the Mental Health Association of Portland.