Many people have turned to online ordering to make grocery shopping safer during the pandemic. But that option isn’t available for SNAP or food stamp recipients, who can only use their benefits in person.
The food-focused nonprofit Local Matters designed a mobile market called the Veggie Van to fill the gap in areas of the city lacking easy access to grocery stores. Now, the program is using the flexibility of a produce department on wheels to fill new gaps created by the pandemic.
"We were trying to figure out, what is it that we can do?" says Monique McCoy, manager of the Veggie Van. "How can we help? How can we get people food?"
McCoy says local food banks had food for seniors, but no way to deliver it. That's where the Veggie Van stepped in.
"We take the food from the food pantries to some of the senior housing where some of our senior citizens cannot leave their facilities to go grocery shopping," McCoy says.
They've also made changes to their usual mobile markets so that getting fresh food is safe and easy for all customers. That includes an online ordering system, which allows people to pick their produce and indicate if they will be paying with SNAP benefits, cash or credit.
"Federally, there is no system in place that allows us to process SNAP virtually," says Tori Strickland, director of programs at Local Matters. "But we can still place their online orders, and then be able to maximize their benefits when they come on site."
Veggie Van offers a dollar-for-dollar match for SNAP users. Usually the match is capped at $20, but because of that pandemic, that match is unlimited through June.
Strickland says they’ve developed a drive-through system so people can stay in their cars, even if they’re paying with SNAP benefits.
"We take payment through a clipboard that we’re going to process that payment off of," Strickland says. "And we’ll have your order right there, ready to go, so you ultimately never have to interact more than a six-foot distance with anyone while you’re at the market."
At a big box store, SNAP users have little choice but to go inside to pay.
"I ultimately have to make a choice of, if I’m going to forfeit utilizing those SNAP dollars and dig into my resources, just to create that safety, just to create that convenience that everybody else has," Strickland says.
Kaci Harris, a mother of five, says grocery shopping during the pandemic was causing her a lot of anxiety – she couldn’t use her food stamps to order online, and every time she went inside it felt too crowded.
She's even driven to the store, then turned around and gone home because too many people were in the parking lot.
"The kids are looking at me funny, like, 'Mom, things are getting low,'" Harris says. "And I’m like, 'I know, I’m going to figure it out. But I’m not going to the grocery store!'"
For a while, Harris was going to small corner stores to pick up some groceries, but she worried about germs on unwrapped produce. That’s when she saw a flyer about the Veggie Van’s drive-through market.
"The Veggie Van, oh God, I seen that flyer and was like, 'Oh my god, thank God,'" Harris says. "I now know, don’t worry guys, we can get produce. I can go get produce and feel so good about it. I feel safe."
Family’s like Harris’ are going to get an extra boost, too: Ohio is one of about 25 states who have been approved for Pandemic EBT, a program that will provide around $300 to some 850,000 Ohio children who received free or reduced lunches when schools shut down.
"There are many families who may not have qualified for free or reduced price meals prior to the pandemic but now would," says Katherine Ungar, with the Children’s Defense Fund. "They would also be eligible for this benefit."
That program also means about $250 million going to Ohio grocery stores, or to mobile markets like the Veggie Van.