For SNAP and WIC recipients, buying groceries during a pandemic is complicated

As a former WIC recipient, Nicole Church says she’s concerned about the shelves clearing out of WIC-approved items because of hoarding and panic-buying. (Photo by Rashah McChesney/KTOO)

Now that people are hunkered down because of COVID-19, more customers are buying groceries online and picking them up curbside or having them delivered — outside their local store.

But for those paying with federal assistance, the options for shopping this way are inconsistent.

Nicole Church said grocery shopping with two rambunctious 5-year-old twin boys was a challenge before the coronavirus.

“That’s under normal circumstances,” Church said. “And under these circumstances it’s even more stressful. They’re always touching things and putting their mouths on counters. I’ve decided that’s not going to happen when we’re hunkering down.”

Running low on milk and other groceries, Church decided to use Instacart to order her groceries online and have them delivered from Juneau’s Costco.

But when she tried to check out, she realized she couldn’t use her Electronic Benefits Transfer card, or EBT card, on Instacart’s payment page.

On its website, Instacart says it accepts debit and credit cards, along with Google Pay and Apple Pay. But you can’t pay with federal assistance programs like Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

That’s left Church wondering what her options are for grocery shopping safely during the pandemic. She’s a single parent — she said finding someone to watch her children can be difficult.

“We can’t be left in the dust just because it’s a challenge to put that system in place,” Church said.

Right now, there’s not a consistent framework for people paying for online orders with federal assistance, and grocery stores are individually responsible for figuring it out.

Other big-box stores in Juneau, like Fred Meyer, can’t accept online orders purchased with federal assistance either.

Vanessa Cropley, a manager at Foodland IGA, thinks maybe the websites aren’t set up to process those kinds of payments.

Foodland doesn’t even have an online ordering system. Cropley and her husband are fulfilling orders for curbside pickup the old-school way: They’re communicating with customers directly by checking emails and having conversations over the phone.

They’re basically being personal shoppers for their customers. So far, they haven’t done the shopping for anyone paying with federal assistance programs yet. But she welcomes it.

“We’re all going to figure this out together,” Cropley said. “There’s no way we can’t figure this out with one another.”

The Super Bear Supermarket IGA store in Juneau can take online payments with SNAP, but not WIC. So customers using SNAP benefits can use curbside pickup there.

As for Church, she says a friend recently picked up her groceries. But she hopes a wider array of stores implement a way for people on federal assistance to get their shopping done while practicing social distancing.

Get the latest updates from Alaska Public Media’s coronavirus coverage here