Anthony Ramos is a sophomore in dentistry at UC San Francisco and is well on his way to a lucrative career perfecting his patients’ smiles. But for now, the days of good and plenty are beyond his current horizon. Ramos’ wallet is being squeezed by forces familiar to many San Franciscans: rent, tuition, and even inflationary pressures that are pushing up prices on everything from a gas tank to coffee, electric bikes, and avocado toast.
“We’re in a doctoral program, but we don’t have any income,” Ramos said of himself and many of his fellow students. “We don’t have access to food unless we take out a high-interest loan to pay for it.”
With few options, Ramos applied for and received CalFresh benefits, the state’s version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which provides low-income residents with financial assistance to purchase groceries through EBT debit cards.
This month, Safeway became the first grocery retailer in San Francisco to allow CalFresh recipients to purchase goods online for pickup and delivery using their SNAP benefits. Safeway’s program, which is starting in the Bay Area before expanding to the rest of Northern California later this year, also eliminates minimum cart fees and the 25-cent baggage fee.
CalFresh benefits were initially not allowed to be used online. That changed with a new pandemic-era pilot program that opened up EBT benefits to online grocery shopping.
“Before online EBT came along, you were pretty limited in what you could do with your card unless you were physically in the store,” Ramos said. “Personally, I went through a period where I didn’t have a car and it was very difficult to get groceries, so I think it’s an essential tool to help feed the people of San Francisco.”
CalFresh recipients can use their EBT debit card as a payment method on the Safeway website, track eligible products and view their SNAP benefits online. You can also use alternative payment methods to purchase non-food products as part of the same order. Benefits cannot be used on alcohol, hot food, medication and non-food items, delivery charges and related fees for online orders.
“The new service is really about giving everyone easy access to the shopping experience, so they have options whether they’re ordering through our e-commerce platforms or shopping in our stores,” said Wendy Gutshall, government affairs at Safeway Director for Northern California.
research out Mercatus, a grocery software provider, showed that grocery e-commerce sales nearly tripled between 2019 and 2021, a trend that has accelerated during the pandemic. At the same time, food insecurity remains a major problem in San Francisco, where it is estimated that one in four residents is at risk of starvation due to lack of money.
Still, there are barriers to taking EBT benefits online. Ramos said he was unable to schedule a grocery delivery from Safeway earlier this week because technical issues with the website prevented him from placing his order.
Safeway said “some minor issues” were reported with the rollout of its expanded SNAP program, and customers with technical difficulties should contact their grocery delivery customer service department at (877) 505-4040.
Although there is no publicly available data on the use of SNAP for online shopping, research by Unbox, a food insecurity group, found that in 2020, just 1.6% of California’s SNAP transactions were online.
According to Unbox’s report, the average online transaction size in California was $29.65, which was below the $30 minimum shopping cart benchmark previously used by Safeway.
Liliana Sandoval, associate director of outreach at SF-Marin Food Bank, said limiting SNAP benefits to in-store purchases has proven to be a major struggle for CalFresh’s elderly or infirm customers, especially during the pandemic.
“These are people who are at higher risk of Covid or who have mobility issues and this option gives them the opportunity to get the nutrition and food they need without driving a few buses or asking someone on their behalf to go,” Sandoval said.
She pointed to a partnership between the California Department of Social Services and Code for America Simplify the CalFresh application process as another recent example of the state using new technology to feed low-income Californians.
“I’ve been doing this work for more than a decade,” Sandoval said. “The big difference over the past five years is that nobody had a phone to text or access the internet before. Now, whether they have a computer or not, they have a computer in their pocket.”
Kevin Truong can be reached at [email protected].
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