A Safeway food delivery truck.
A Safeway food delivery truck. (Alberston Companies)

Maryland is one of seven states chosen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to participate in a two-year pilot that will allow food stamp recipients to buy groceries online for the first time.

The federal agency that oversees the supplemental nutritional food program for low income people, also known as SNAP, announced that in Maryland online retailer Amazon, along with grocery chains ShopRite and Safeway will begin accepting the federal benefits for online food purchases when the program starts this summer.

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The hope is to make healthy foods more accessible to low-income communities where there are few grocery stores, areas often referred to as food deserts.

"Online purchasing is a potential lifeline for SNAP participants living in urban neighborhoods and rural communities where access to healthy food choices can be limited," USDA secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release on Friday. "We're looking forward to being able to bring the benefits of the online market to low-income Americans participating in SNAP."

Anti-hunger groups and public health officials called the decision important in helping improve the health of the state's neediest citizens. The lack of healthy food can lead to a lifetime of health problems, including chronic conditions like obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

More than 43 million low-income individuals nationwide received SNAP benefits last year. In Baltimore, a little more than 200,000 residents, nearly a third of the city's population, use food stamps, according to a 2015 city report on the city's food environment.

The report also found that 1 in 4 residents live in an area identified as a food desert.

"I think this is a step in the right direction," said Talib Horne, executive director of Bon Secours Community Works, which started an urban farm to address food access issues in West Baltimore. "There's an immediate need for grocery stores and realistically that might take a longer time to accomplish. I think in the meantime this is a good option."

Retailers said they would watch the pilot closely. Some worried that it might take away business from brick-and-mortar supermarkets and hurt small local groceries that have long existed in neighborhoods that larger chains have avoided or left.

Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association said she has gotten calls from members worried about losing business.

"Any time you tinker with any part of the revenue for a grocery store, you can literally send them in the red very quickly," Tolle said.

Grocery stores tend to have narrow profit margins of 1 percent on average, she said.

The 2014 Farm Bill included a requirement that the USDA test online shopping with food stamps. The pilot program was delayed because online retailers weren't technologically ready to accept the debit cards that replaced the paper food stamps long used by recipients.

Baltimore health officials pushed for that rule change. The Baltimore Health Department has run a virtual grocery store since 2010, but the program was limited because people could only order online but had to pay in person when they received the food, said Baltimore City food policy director Holly Freishtat.

"A lot of grocery stores may not come in as brick and mortar, but they may do delivery," Freishtat said. "I think it creates more opportunity for food deserts."

The six other states chosen for the pilot program are Iowa, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Oregon and Washington.

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"Amazon is excited to participate in the USDA SNAP online purchasing pilot," the company said in a statement. "We are committed to making food accessible through online grocery shopping, offering all customers the lowest prices possible."

Albertsons Companies, which operates 63 Safeway stores in Maryland, said they were glad to be chosen.

"Enabling SNAP participants to shop online and have their groceries delivered makes fresh foods more accessible to everyone, including those who may not be able to make a weekly trip to the store," the company said in a statement. "We're proud to be part of combating food insecurity in these communities.

The USDA said it eventually hopes to add more retailers and plans to expand online grocery shopping with SNAP benefits nationwide. The agency is using the pilot to work out any potential snafus.

Some observers were skeptical about the new initiatives' potential benefits.

Rachel Sheffield, a policy analyst with The Heritage Foundation, said the new delivery option could open up the food stamps program to increased fraud. It may also encourage recipients to use their own money, which could be used for other needs, to pay for grocery delivery services, she said.

"The food stamps program is one of the largest means-tested welfare programs," she said. "It is in major need of reform, including reforms to protect against fraud."

The USDA said SNAP purchases will have higher security level protections to prevent fraud.

Even advocates for food assistance recipients said some factors may pose challenges for online shopping. For instance, SNAP benefits can only be used to pay for food and not delivery fees. In some neighborhoods people may not be comfortable having food left on their porches where it could be stolen. And people in some areas, such as small rural towns, may not have access to the Internet.

"I think there are things we can learn from this project, but there is a lot of upside to it," said Michael J. Wilson, director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, a statewide anti-hunger group.

Meredith Cohn contributed to this report.

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