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Families on SNAP Are Reluctant to Buy Groceries Online Due to Distrust

Researchers studied consumer behavior in 2021 during a pilot program in which the USDA approved Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits for online grocery purchases to boost low-income people’s access to healthful foods. During the COVID-19 pandemic, when individuals were encouraged to stay at home, the initiative began in 2019 and grew in 2020.

“During the pandemic, the expansion of the SNAP online policy was critical in ensuring that low-income populations had equal access to foodstuffs,” says lead author Angela Trude, an assistant professor of nutrition and food studies at New York University.

“However, are SNAP families truly ordering goods online with government benefits?” If that’s the case, what are they purchasing and why? These two questions must be answered to determine whether the government policy achieves its intended aim.”

To assess their opinions toward online shopping and purchasing habits, Trude and her coauthors polled the principal shoppers for 310 SNAP-eligible families in Maryland (shoppers who did and did not buy groceries online). In Appetite, the authors prepared an infographic highlighting significant findings from their study.

They discovered that most shoppers (57 percent) had ordered groceries online at least once. Those who have done so we’re more likely to have good sentiments toward the service, describing it as convenient and spending the same amount of money or less than when shopping in-store.

However, the survey found that when shopping online, buyers were 70% less likely to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables and meat and seafood than when shopping in person. Participants said they were less likely to buy these items in interviews because they didn’t trust hired shoppers to pick high-quality items.

When buying groceries online, shoppers were also less likely (49%) to buy sweets (such as chocolates, cookies, or cake). Participants informed researchers that shopping online allowed them to avoid impulse purchases and relieved them of their children’s pressure to buy sweets.

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“Online grocery shopping is a promising tool for addressing food access challenges, but our research suggests that it may be contributing to lower purchases of healthy foods, owing to confusion and skepticism in how these products are chosen,” Trude adds.

“This information will help lobby for better retail practices and policies, such as online hired shopper training, specific return/refund rights, and delivery charge waivers for SNAP clients.

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The experiment was funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s Healthy Eating Research initiative, a national program.

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