MaryAnne lives in a rural town where the grocery store carries some of everything, but not much that’s fresh or healthful. None of the farm stands where she and her partner work full time to raise their five children accepts the SNAP card she uses to buy groceries.
Kelley lives near grocery stores and has access to public transportation. But because she has a child with special needs who requires a feeding tube, a trip to the store can be complicated, with little time to seek deals to help her family eat well on her limited SNAP budget.
Commonly known as “food stamps,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, got its start when visiting a grocery store was required for getting food. For those who rely on food stamps, going to the store is still required. But Thrive Market, an online marketplace that sells organic, fair-trade foods, contends that this old-school approach makes no sense and has mounted a campaign to change the regulations. Why shouldn’t SNAP recipients have access to the world’s largest store — the internet?
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With nearly 45 million U.S. residents — including 1 in 5 children — relying on SNAP, and an estimated 13.5 million U.S. residents living without good access to fresh food, the need seems obvious. Research shows 74 percent of people in households earning less than $30,000 a year can connect to the internet while only 24 percent of people in poverty have a car. To Thrive Market founder Gunnar Lovelace, the logic seems inescapable: Allow SNAP to be used online. In June, Thrive Market brought together a coalition of brands and influential individuals, including actor Matthew McConaughey, to petition the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the administrator of SNAP, to bring food stamps into the 21st century.
“Our goal was to develop and nurture a strong partnership with the USDA to enable online use of SNAP for all qualified e-commerce retailers,” Lovelace says. The issue is personal for Lovelace, who grew up watching his mom, a single parent, struggle to put healthful food on the table. As an entrepreneur, he responded with Thrive Market, and to date, the retailer has raised $141 million across three rounds of funding; employs more than 600 people; and has donated more than 350,000 memberships to low-income families, teachers, veterans and students.
Edouard Rollet is co-CEO and co-founder of Alter Eco, a global organic foods brand that surpassed $22 million in revenue in 2015. Rollet’s company partnered with Thrive Market on the initiative. “For us, supporting this initiative wasn’t a financial equation, but a moral one,” Rollet says. “We want to make healthier foods widely available, and we want them to be affordable to those who otherwise have to resort to cheaper, less nutritious options.”
Ryan Devlin is co-founder and CEO of This Bar Saves Lives, a snack-bar company that donates a packet of food aid to a child in need for each bar purchased. The company was also a brand partner on the SNAP petition. “We launched our company with a simple mission to deliver the best food aid abroad by selling the best food products here,” Devlin says. “Nutrition meets access, which is exactly what the food stamp initiative is working to accomplish domestically.” (See other feel-good products recommended by Devlin.)
The Agricultural Act, or “Farm Bill,” of 2014 required the USDA to find ways for people to use food stamps online. In September, the petition led by Thrive Market delivered more than 320,000 signatures, and the USDA announced that it had begun taking applications from retailers for an online pilot that would launch in late 2017. The USDA plans to partner with up to five e-retailers for the program, which is expected to run for two years.
According to Kevin Concannon, the USDA undersecretary for food, nutrition and consumer services, the agency sees the value of online shopping for SNAP recipients but is concerned about the security of taxpayer-funded benefits. The pilot program will work with retailers to tackle SNAP requirements, such as separating ineligible items.
For SNAP client Kelley, the program can’t be implemented soon enough. “I get recommendations from doctors for my son’s diet, and I don’t think they realize the cost, time and effort it takes to maintain these diets,” she says. “It would make a world of difference to buy organic online, especially using SNAP.”
Note: Only first names of SNAP recipients were used at their request to preserve their privacy.
This article was originally published as part of the Trending department in the Winter 2016/2017 issue of B Magazine.