Tech conveniences that many take for granted finally reach people experiencing poverty

(Maria Lin Kim Photo via Unsplash)

COVID-19 caused society to re-envision how we shop, work and interact. But some of those changes, such as improved and expanded conveniences such as grocery shopping online and widespread use of delivery services, skipped over people who are low-income or experiencing poverty.

Two years into the pandemic, some of those benefits have at last spread more widely.

Safeway, which has 169 stores in Washington state, recently received federal approval to accept food stamps through its online grocery shopping platform, joining Amazon and Walmart. United Way of King County has launched a text-based service to remotely reach people who need help getting food or rent support, as well as community college students eligible for assistance. United Way is also delivering food through a partnership with DoorDash, in an effort that’s separate from Safeway’s program.

While COVID has created tremendous hardships for many, it has also provided “the ability to think differently” about how services are delivered, said Lauren McGowan, associate vice president for United Way’s ending homelessness and poverty efforts.

The technology can make it easier for people in need to learn about and use different programs. One hope, McGowan said, is that greater awareness will more clearly reveal the actual demand for programs, and lead to better public funding.

For the food delivery program, the nonprofit coordinates with DoorDash, food banks and community partners to send weekly boxes of groceries to 5,700 homes in the county, which includes Seattle and Bellevue.

“We can find the food, match the driver and make it happen. We see it as the future of how we do our work.”

“It is scalable. We can find the food, match the driver and make it happen,” McGowan said. “We see it as the future of how we do our work.”

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DoorDash is helping deliver groceries to communities nationwide. McGowan said the King County effort is providing three times as many deliveries thanks to local efforts to leverage public-private partnerships and purchase larger amounts of food.

Safeway doesn’t yet have data on its new platform for online shopping using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, which is the federal food assistance program historically known as food stamps. But the demand could be significant: In King County alone, roughly 180,000 people participate in SNAP — about 8% of the population.

In addition to the convenience of shopping from home, the site displays the total costs, which items are covered by SNAP, the amount of SNAP benefits available, and highlights sale items.

“There is a lot of anxiety for people when they have limited benefits and are shopping in the store,” said Sara Osborne, Safeway’s director of external affairs.

That’s avoided when the grocery cart and checkout are virtual, and people can easily move items in and out of their cart. Online shoppers can opt for in-person pickup or delivery of their groceries.

To encourage healthy eating, when shoppers purchase $10 of fresh or frozen produce using SNAP funds, Washington state provides an additional $5 for produce. For groceries ordered online, Safeway provides a coupon for another $5 produce match on top of the state’s.

Safeway’s online shopping with SNAP benefits is available throughout Washington, and in some locations in Oregon and California. The plan is to continue expanding the service. Safeway is owned by Albertsons, which also operates Vons, Haggen and other stores in 34 states nationally.

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One hitch in the rollout has been the limited digital skills among some seniors and difficulties experienced by non-English speakers. Osborne said they’re talking with senior centers to offer instruction or just have the centers order for the seniors. They’re also adding foreign language subtitles to online ordering how-to videos.

“It’s always been important to us that our brick-and-mortar stores are accessible to everyone,” Osborne said, and that extends to online as well.

Editor’s note: This story was updated to correct the amount that shoppers must spend on produce to receive additional dollars from the state.

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