FreshDirect launches food stamp pilot program in the Bronx

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 9/27/2012, 1:59 p.m.
In two ZIP codes in the Bronx, residents on food stamps will not be shut...
FreshDirect launches food stamp pilot program in the Bronx

In two ZIP codes in the Bronx, residents on food stamps will not be shut out of a chance to buy groceries through FreshDirect.

Earlier this month, the grocer launched a food stamp pilot program that will be able to support Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) transactions for online purchases of groceries in the 10454 and 10455 ZIP codes, which encompasses the Port Morris-Mott Haven and Woodstock neighborhoods respectively. Now, those residents can use their EBT accounts to purchase from FreshDirect.

FreshDirect spokespeople said the program is aimed at changing federal policy that keeps food stamp recipients from using their benefits to purchase groceries over the Internet. Current federal law prohibits Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients from buying groceries through online vendors like FreshDirect, so EBT doesn't support these transactions.

FreshDirect CEO Jason Ackerman elaborated on the company's stance.

"In the short term, this unprecedented pilot will provide food stamp users in parts of the Bronx greater access to fresh groceries," said Ackerman in a statement. "But its real value is over the long term, since it has the potential to modernize a critical food assistance program and help more people purchase quality produce and other healthy foods in a convenient way."

FreshDirect said it will use the program to identify EBT modifications that might need to be made to the system in order to make groceries accessible to food stamp users. The company said it will then provide internal company data and customer feedback to the USDA in order to help develop a new policy to expand online EBT food payments.

Bronx Borough President Ruben Diaz Jr. said he appreciated Ackerman and FreshDirect's efforts to ingratiate themselves with the community after its move from Queens.

"Throughout the relocation process, FreshDirect has been focused on the needs of Bronx residents, so much so that the company signed a comprehensive MOU [memorandum of understanding] with my office outlining their commitment to the Bronx on service expansion, local hiring and other key concerns," said Diaz.

Bronx customers in the two ZIP codes can use their EBT account cards to order EBT-eligible items on FreshDirect's website and through their iPhone and Android mobile apps free of delivery charges or sales tax. About 24,000 households in the two ZIP codes will receive a promotional offer and information materials through direct mail by the end of September to increase awareness about the food stamp pilot.

Mirroring the windows offered to non-EBT customers in the same neighborhoods, FreshDirect services will be available six days per week during delivery time blocks of 6:30 a.m. to 2 p.m. or 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. Also, customer service lines will be available in English Monday through Sunday from 6:30 a.m. to midnight and in Spanish from 8 a.m. until midnight.

To comply with current EBT regulations, FreshDirect will make several business changes that will include waiving all delivery charges for food stamp orders, paying the difference in cost if an EBT customer receives merchandise in excess weight or amount from what they ordered, investing in offline payment processing machines to accept EBT payments at point of delivery and developing software to modify the company's website interface to exclude non-EBT authorized merchandise from EBT orders.