Grocery Shopping From Safe Distance: Mass. Pursues Online Purchasing for EBT Holders

People who use EBT cards in Massachusetts are currently required to swipe their cards inside stores, increasing their risk of exposure to coronavirus

EBT sign

Massachusetts state leaders are pursuing a way to give the rapidly growing number of people relying on federal food benefits a way to buy groceries from a safe distance.  

On Friday, Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said the state is submitting a request to participate in a pilot program that will allow for online ordering with EBT cards, the debit cards for people on the program formerly known as food stamps.  

The development comes several days after an NBC10 Boston report about how EBT cards can’t be used to purchase groceries online. Instead, recipients are required to swipe their cards inside stores, increasing their risk of exposure to coronavirus.  

The federal pilot program originally involved six states and engaged retail giants Amazon and Walmart. Since the pandemic, a handful of other states have asked to join.  

EBT cards can't be used to buy food online, something Massachusetts Rep. Jim McGovern is trying to change as coronavirus keeps people indoors.

Sudders acknowledged the inquiry this week by NBC10 Boston and said the request to join the federal program would be submitted next week. After approval, it would likely take two to four months to test the technology and make it fully operational.  

The Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) will work with the state’s EBT vendor to make the change. The agency has seen a 400% increase in applications for food assistance since the beginning of the public health crisis, Sudders said.  

However, once the online option is available it may not guarantee that delivery will go smoothly. Other shoppers pursuing grocery delivery have found it difficult to secure available slots and encountered lengthy wait times.  

That’s why the DTA will also be engaging with local retail associations and grocers to see if they can accommodate EBT holders ordering food online and then paying when they arrive for curbside pickup. 

Advocates told NBC10 Boston that idea provides the opportunity for the most immediate impact.  

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