Gloria Santiago would love to avoid the coronavirus by ordering groceries from home and having them delivered, just like the Acme and Whole Foods shoppers she hears about.

“The pressure would be less heavy than bringing my 7-year-old and 3-year-old into the store with me, worrying about them touching everything, worrying about them being at risk for bringing home the virus,” said Santiago, 29, of the city’s Fairhill section, a single mother and now-unemployed waitress from a recently shuttered local restaurant. She qualifies for food stamps.

Under federal rules, however, it is nearly impossible for the more than 1.7 million recipients in Pennsylvania and 682,000 in New Jersey to use the benefits — known as SNAP, for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — to order food by phone or online and have it delivered.

So, Santiago forgoes shopping trips if she can’t find a babysitter. Weighing safety against bread and milk, she absorbs the resentment from her kids, who must do without. “It would be magnificent to be able to order groceries from home,” she said. “That would be perfect for me.”

The coronavirus has underscored the disenfranchisement of low-income Americans whose poverty precludes them from numerous benefits enjoyed by better-off Americans. As health officials warn the public about the dangers of the supermarket — for workers, as well as shoppers — people who need SNAP to survive find themselves facing threats that others don’t.

“Low-income people have been denied access to lifesaving technology that would protect them when they shop,” said Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, a Los Angeles-based national advocacy group for disadvantaged Americans. "The belief is, if you’re out there begging for food, you don’t deserve the bells and whistles the middle class has to get their food delivered.

“Our food system is a cycle of inequality.”

Pilot programs

In certain states, SNAP online pilot programs, conducted with select retailers, allow shoppers to use the benefit to order food and have it delivered, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers SNAP. Those states are: Alabama, Iowa, Nebraska, New York, Oregon, Washington, Arizona, California, Florida, and Idaho.

New Jersey was approved as a pilot state two years ago, “but various barriers have kept it from happening,” said Adele LaTourette, director of Hunger Free New Jersey in Bergen County. She said she’s awaiting word from state officials to explain what the specific problems are.

Late last month, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sent a forceful letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue urging him to make the program more widely available.

“It is inhumane to consider that Pennsylvanians who are doing the responsible thing by staying home to stop the spread of COVID-19 in our communities," Wolf wrote, "would go hungry because of USDA’s limiting interpretations and refusal to cut bureaucratic red tape during a national crisis.”

In a statement, Perdue said, “USDA is committed to maximizing our services and flexibilities to ensure children and others who need food can get it during this coronavirus epidemic. This is a challenging time for many Americans, but it is reassuring to see President Trump and our fellow Americans stepping up to the challenges facing us to make sure kids and those facing hunger are fed.”

Participating in the pilot would present certain hurdles, according to a spokesperson for Pennsylvania’s Department of Human Services.

Just three grocers involved in the program provide service in Pennsylvania: Walmart, Amazon, and ShopRite.

SNAP recipients carry Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards that are automatically loaded with benefits each month. According to a USDA spokesperson, the systems in grocery stores would have to be able to remotely accept each person’s individual PIN number, as well as process, track, and store the data associated with online SNAP transactions.

Further, grocery stores often charge delivery fees, and SNAP benefits can’t be used to pay those.

Logistical challenges

There may be alternate means to address some of these problems, although they present logistical challenges of their own, food industry experts say.

“Theoretically,” SNAP recipients could order food online, then go to stores and swipe their cards curbside, said Alex Baloga, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Food Merchants Association in Harrisburg. Federal rules preclude SNAP recipients from prepaying for food with their EBT cards.

“But,” he added, “that defeats the purpose [of social distancing], because you would like to have food ordering as contactless and seamless as possible.” Also, it’s not clear how many stores are set up to do this, Baloga added.

In another possibility, a SNAP recipient could order food, then have the delivery person show up with a so-called point-of-sale (POS) device that would allow the customer to swipe his or her card.

However, Baloga said, “I don’t know how prevalent POS devices are in Pennsylvania. Their use is not widespread.”

Kathy Fisher, policy director at the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger, was more pointed: “I don’t think anyone is using POS devices for SNAP. I don’t even know how real this is.”

U.S. Sen. Bob Casey (D., Pa.) has introduced a bill in Congress that would utilize aspects of POS and curbside sales, allowing SNAP recipients to order groceries online or by phone. He also proposes a federal allotment of $500 million to reimburse retailers for grocery delivery fees for SNAP participants.

Last week, Casey called for increases in SNAP benefits.

SNAP program ‘slow’

It’s unclear how soon residents of non-pilot states might be able to access grocery delivery via SNAP.

“We are a long way from having this service made widely available,” said Elaine Waxman, senior fellow at the Urban Institute, a nonpartisan research organization in Washington and an expert on food insecurity and nutrition.

“The SNAP program had been slow to explore options of home delivery even before the coronavirus,” she said. Critics of SNAP — which President Donald Trump has tried three times to alter and cut back — contend the program is subject to fraud and abuse, "even though all data show fraud is very low.”

She added that the pandemic is “highlighting the importance of accelerating [the pilot program], but the ability to respond is limited.”

As people lose their jobs and hunger increases throughout the nation, it’s time for the USDA to “make SNAP a more robust tool and help people eat in a time of social distancing,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Washington-based Food Research and Action Center, the nation’s main antihunger lobbying group.

She said the USDA should suspend other rules that prevent SNAP recipients from buying hot prepared items sold at supermarkets, such as rotisserie chicken. Those regulations were formulated in the 1960s, when most stores didn’t offer such foods, Vollinger said.

According to the USDA, hot foods are an allowable SNAP food purchase only in the event of a Presidential Disaster Declaration of Individual Assistance, which has not been announced.

The USDA should also allow more people with SNAP benefits to be able to use them in restaurants, Vollinger said. A modest program allows for older, homeless, or disabled recipients to buy food in places like McDonald’s in just three states: California, Arizona, and Rhode Island.

“There’s an economic crisis in the restaurant industry,” Vollinger said. “I think there’d be interest in SNAP.” Indeed, the National Restaurant Association has said SNAP recipients should have the ability to “purchase prepared foods from restaurants with SNAP dollars.”

It’s not clear whether the USDA will alter the restaurant rule.

In the end, Vollinger said, the agency needs to do more.

“USDA needs to be more responsive,” she said. “In a disaster, we need more flexibility. We need more food in people’s hands.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice. See all of our reporting at brokeinphilly.org.