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Online Grocery Delivery is Evolving in Ways that Matter

By Emily Guzman, MS Nutrition Student at UIC

As 700,000 SNAP participants prepare to lose their benefits under the Trump administration’s recent rule changes, a USDA pilot program that allows SNAP participants to join the modern era of online grocery shopping offers a more hopeful narrative about the progress and evolution of SNAP. The 2014 Farm Bill authorized the USDA to launch the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot, a program that would allow the use of SNAP benefits at online retailers like Amazon, Walmart, FreshDirect, Safeway and ShopRite. The pilot launched in New York in 2017 and expanded to seven more states in January 2020 (Illinois not included).

The pilot’s expansion does more than illuminate new advancements in SNAP. It signals a changing landscape of online grocery shopping to one that includes the low-income, food-insecure populations that dietitians everywhere serve. If SNAP participants and other clients aren’t already asking about grocery delivery services, they may start to.

As a student with a small food budget and a south-side ZIP code, I’ve always felt these services were a luxury not available to me. I worry about issues of fair pay for delivery workers, waste from non-reusable materials, hidden fees and upcharging, and food safety. I enjoy the sensory experience of smelling, touching, and picking my own food in the store. But as more people like me join the delivery scene, and as I prepare for a career as a dietitian, I want to know the options, benefits, and drawbacks of these services.

I spent the last month researching, reviewing, and trying these services first-hand, through the lens of someone with little time and a tight budget. Here’s what I found:

  • Chicago’s services: The most popular options include Instacart, Amazon Now, Amazon Fresh, and Walmart. Instacart retailers include Aldi, Pete’s Fresh Market, Mariano’s, Jewel Osco, Binny’s, Food4Less, Costco, Target, and Fresh Thyme. Peapod no longer operates in the Midwest, and Shipt offers delivery only from Meijer and to select south-side neighborhoods, like Englewood and Beverly.

  • Unavoidable fees: Instacart and Walmart were the most cost-prohibitive. Walmart’s delivery fees range from $7.95 to $9.95, even after you meet the $30 minimum purchase. Instacart requires a $10 minimum purchase and delivery costs anywhere from $3.99-$7.99. They also get you with a 5% service fee and busy pricing fees during peak delivery hours.

  • Upcharging: Many Instacart retailers like Costco and Pete’s Fresh Market set higher prices online than what you’d find in stores. For example, Costco products are about 30% higher on Instacart than in-store.

  • Save money with yearly memberships: Though not feasible for all populations, yearly membership is worth the investment for regular online shoppers. Amazon Now and Fresh are included with Prime membership, which ranges from $59/yr for students and $119/yr for others. Instacart Express is a membership option for regular Instacart shoppers that pays for itself in just a few months because of reduced service fees, no delivery fees on orders above $35, and no busy-pricing fees. Membership costs $99/yr.

  • My student pick: Amazon Now and Amazon Fresh offer free two-hour delivery on orders greater than $35, no additional fees, and a wide selection of groceries. The $59/yr student membership is reasonable, and they offer a discounted Prime membership to SNAP participants.

This is not an exhaustive list of services available and their respective pros and cons. Other services like Imperfect Foods offer great appeal in their mission to eliminate food waste and bring you in-season produce. In the end, dietitians know better than anyone that food purchasing behavior is multifactorial and what’s best for me isn’t best for everyone. The best we can do is educate ourselves in order to educate others.

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