Middle- and upper-class city dwellers tend to live near supermarkets. But if the trek feels too far, in many cities and suburbs they can order grocery deliveries, often for a single-digit delivery fee, from services such as Instacart, Peapod and FreshDirect.

That’s not an option for the 14 percent of Americans who rely on food stamps. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program's benefits cannot be used online. That only worsens food access for poor Americans who live far from grocery stores.

And many of them do. The Agriculture Department estimates that 11.5 million poor Americans live more than one mile from a supermarket, commonly called a "food desert." That represents 4.1 percent of the U.S. population. And 2.3 million households, or 2.2 percent overall, do not have access to a vehicle and live more than a mile from a supermarket.

 Households with no car and low access to store, 2010. Adult obesity rate by county, 2010.
Image: WonkBlog

As these maps demonstrate, food deserts are most common in some of the country's poorest areas, such as the Deep South, Appalachia, and the border of New Mexico and Arizona. And they often are also in places where obesity rates are high, highlighting the fact that people who have trouble getting easy access to high quality food are often less healthy.

The Internet might provide a solution. This fall, the USDA will start recruiting online grocery delivery services to test the possibility of accepting SNAP benefits. The experiments are long overdue. Congress instructed the agency in the 2014 Farm Bill to conduct and publicly report the results of these tests by July 1, 2016, and then assess if the program should be implemented nationwide.

"We look forward to working with states to get these projects running and learn how best to bring online access to SNAP participants in an efficient and secure manner," USDA press secretary Cathy Cochran wrote in a statement.

Ed Bolen, senior policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, said that buying food can be exhausting for the poor. Those earning low wages are already pressed for time as many work multiple jobs.

A big-box supermarket, which would probably have the lowest prices, could take hours to visit by public transportation. A neighborhood grocery store could be closer but have higher prices, a sacrifice hard to accept when the average monthly food stamp allowance is $125 per month. Closest of all might be a corner store, gas station or pharmacy. That offers plenty of processed and frozen foods, but no fresh produce or meat.

“Just the litany of challenges when you’re resource scarce, when you don't have a lot of options, can make it very difficult to go to a store that has the best selection,” Bolen said.

Access to at-home Internet is somewhat more common among the poor than access to a car — 88 percent vs.79.6 percent. Take Mobile, Ala., where a third of residents are both below poverty level and live further than half a mile from the nearest supermarket. Ninety-one percent of those below the poverty line have Internet access, and only 76 percent have a car. The option of home-delivered groceries, assuming the Internet access is fast enough to use the websites of grocery providers, could make life less stressful.

Half of Mobile, Alabama lives in a food desert
Image: WonkBlog

It may also take less time to shop online than in brick-and-mortar stores, particularly when comparing prices. Today, visiting multiple stores in search of the best prices is common for SNAP households, said Kathy Edin, who studies poverty as a professor at Johns Hopkins University.

Spending food stamps online involves several barriers, beyond the USDA's sluggishness in getting the pilots up and running. For starters, all vendors that accept SNAP benefits must meet standards that regulators have put in place to prevent food stamp fraud. And the way benefits are conferred altogether would need to be changed. SNAP transactions require entering an encrypted pin, which is not currently compatible with online credit card forms. Broadband, while common, is not universal among the poor. According to a Center for Public Integrity analysis, 2.6 percent of upper-middle-class and wealthy lack high-speed Internet, compared to 11.9 percent of the poor.

Edin said grocery companies will likely have to change, too. Currently, grocery delivery services cater to young professionals without cars or many financial concerns. Along with the slew of other apps that take care of your laundry, pets and housekeeping with the touch of a button, they were created to tend to the demands of the young and well-off.

Even when the poor have greater access to better food, research has shown that they will still not consume enough fruits and vegetables. Low-income people have concerns about what their children will eat and how long fresh food might last in refrigerators, Edin said. So, even when broccoli is the same price as pizza pockets, the poor aren't automatically apt to buy veggies if there's any concern that their children would refuse to eat it. That would waste a valuable fraction of their food stamp budget.

Poor people also shop shop differently than middle- and upper-class people too, for example, with routine coupon clipping. To truly better the lives of food stamp households, Edin said, grocery delivery services will have to use social media and other creative strategies to show the poor how to prepare healthy foods. “They're going to have to learn how to market for this population in order for it to make sense,” Edin said. “Poor people do eat less healthy food when it's cheapest.”

Major grocers such as Walmart and Kroger that provide grocery delivery services do not accept electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards that are traditionally used to distribute food stamp benefits. The same goes for Instacart and Peapod.

Kroger spokesman Keith Dailey said in an email that the company is "watching the conversation closely," but doesn't have any plans to accept food stamps online. Peapod would support a USDA move to allow food stamps to be used online, said Peg Merzbacher, regional marketing vice president. Walmart and Instacart did not reply to a request for comment.

Some companies are taking a more proactive approach to the issue. In some locations, Safeway accepts EBT cards for online deliveries, but only for people with a disability. New York City-based FreshDirect, one of the first delivery services, started accepting EBT cards in the two area codes in the Bronx in 2012. A delivery driver must have a card reader to accept EBT.

Larry Scott Blackmon, vice president of public affairs for FreshDirect, said that the company hopes to expand the program and will work with the USDA to show how mail delivery for food stamp households could work.

It would take widespread involvement of the biggest players to make a true difference. In the meantime, far smaller companies are pushing for the option.

Thrive Market, an online store focused on healthy food and organic products, has been leading a coalition of health food companies pushing to make it possible for food stamp families nationwide to use their EBT cards online. After the USDA dragged its feet on launching a trial, Thrive launched an online campaign late last month to speed up the pilot program, with partners like Clif Bar & Company, the Hispanic Federation and celebrity fitness trainer Jillian Michaels.

With 300,000 paying members, Thrive, which was founded in 2014 and based in Los Angeles, ships nonperishable health foods and other home products at discounted prices while providing free memberships to low-income families for each paid one. For those low-income customers, chief executive Gunnar Lovelace said his company has made it easier to shop for natural and higher quality cleaning supplies, cereals, and oils — though it must be said many of these are more Whole Foods and less bare essentials.

Grocery delivery services have become especially popular in the past five years. This year, $33 billion will be spent on food online — about 4 percent of all money spent on food and beverages overall, according to research from financial consulting firm Cowen and Co.

Bolen, the Center on Budget expert, said it may very well be inevitable that food stamps are usable online. As the law states, food stamps are meant to allow “low-income households to obtain a more nutritious diet through normal channels of trade.”

Grocery delivery services are increasingly a normal channel. Already, Lovelace said, some of his low-income customers have to discontinue their service because they can’t use food stamps on the site.

“We don't want to leave people behind just because they're poor,” said Bolen, the senior policy analyst with the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.