“Most shoppers eligible for SNAP reported ordering groceries online at least once. However, we found that they bought fewer healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) online than in physical stores.”

Angela Trude, PhD, is an Assistant Professor in the Nutrition Program at NYU Steinhardt, Department of Nutrition and Food Studies. Her work examines the systemic roots of preventable chronic diseases with the objective of identifying and testing solutions for at-risk populations. Dr. Trude is the Principal Investigator of a Healthy Eating Research-funded study focused on online food purchasing behaviors of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants. These study findings were recently published in the journal Appetite.

What question or challenge were you seeking to address when you started this study?

We wanted to know if SNAP families were ordering groceries online, what they were buying, the barriers they perceived, and explore possible unintended consequences of the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot (OPP), which allowed SNAP benefits to be used as a payment method for online grocery orders in selected retailers. Maryland was one of the 8 states originally part of the SNAP OPP, but our study was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic when the SNAP OPP was rapidly expanded nationwide.

What were the key findings of your study?

Most shoppers eligible for SNAP reported ordering groceries online at least once. However, we found that they bought fewer healthy foods (like fruits and vegetables) online than in physical stores. Families discussed mistrust of online hired shoppers as one of the reasons to avoid ordering fruits, vegetables, meat, and seafood items online. The surge in online grocery services could thus have unintended consequences on healthy food access and healthy eating among many families.

Are there any findings that you found surprising or particularly important?

We found that families are buying fewer sweets online than in-store. Although this had been reported in previous studies, we were able to ask participants directly why this was the case. Families told us that they feel less pressure from their children when shopping online – which could be a promise of such services. They also mentioned that they are constantly reminded of junk foods when shopping in the physical stores, referring to the in-store nudges or promotions, which they did not see online. This is particularly important because personalized marketing practices are rapidly evolving in online retail settings – for example, we see personalized promotions, recommendations, and advertisements that can increase purchases of processed foods. If online marketing regulations are not in place, this promising and positive finding from our study could easily be masked and turned into another unintended consequence of online grocery services for public health.

What comes next? Can you tell us about the implications of your findings for future research or policy and practice changes?

In our study, we asked SNAP families for recommendations and suggestions of ways that stakeholders could support healthy food selection in online grocery services. They offered the following suggestions:

  • Improved retail practices and policies, such as training of online hired shoppers and explicit return/refund rights as a way to address mistrust in online hired shoppers (for example, this could address the fear or receiving bad or spoiled produce).
  • Retailers should consider waiving delivery fees for SNAP customers, as the cost of delivery and service fees are still significant for SNAP families.  
  • Participants also would like to see more small grocery retailers accepting SNAP benefits online, as most of the stores they patronize are still not part of the program. It is important that the USDA authorizes more online retailers in locations that serve SNAP-eligible families.

As for future research, our team just received seed funds to test 4 possible strategies to address barriers to online grocery shopping in underserved communities of NYC. We are collaborating with another HER grantee, Dr. Pasquale Rummo, and will work together to identify possible low-cost solutions that could be scaled-up to support selection of fruits and vegetables online among SNAP-eligible families.

Thanks to Dr. Angela Trude for breaking down her latest findings. To learn more, read the full study. For a snapshot of the findings, check out the infographic her team developed below.