These days, you can use the internet to get a college degree, contest a parking ticket and go to therapy. But as recently as 2019, Americans receiving SNAP benefits — aka food stamps — weren’t able to buy groceries online.
Kristina Herrmann has been a leader in the movement to change that.
Herrmann is the chief business officer at Forage, a San Francisco-based payments startup focused on trying to enable online shopping through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, abbreviated SNAP. It’s a rapidly evolving space, thanks in part to the pandemic: Online EBT shopping took on greater significance when COVID-19 emerged and more folks wanted to shop for groceries without having to physically go to the store. (EBT is the payment method, similar to a debit card, that federal food assistance benefits are put on.)
Today, online EBT shopping is available in every state but one (Alaska). Though that’s a “major accomplishment,” Herrmann says, the vast majority of businesses still don’t actually allow people to use EBT online. Expanding online EBT will give consumers more options to use food stamps without dealing with any stigma, she says.
As a kid growing up in Kentucky, Herrmann and her parents — an immigrant and a disabled veteran — just “scraped by” financially. But she says they were wary of government benefits because of public perception: Back then, families took literal stamps to the store to pay for groceries.
“When you were in checkout with those paper food stamps, everyone knew what you were paying with,” Herrmann adds. “Everyone knew that it meant that you were getting government benefits because you didn't have enough money to make ends meet.”
As an adult, she made it her mission to make online EBT shopping accessible for customers in all parts of the country. In 2006, Herrmann joined Amazon, where she led the company’s underserved populations team and worked on the first pilot launches of online EBT shopping in the U.S., leading to the availability that exists now. (Amazon, Walmart and ShopRite were the first three companies to accept SNAP online in April 2019.)
Forage hired Herrmann this past September. In her new role, she’s working with small and large companies to offer online EBT shopping to their customers.
To accept online EBT, businesses need a system in their website coding for determining which items can be purchased with SNAP, which can be a barrier that stops some retailers from accepting it. That’s where Forage comes in. It’s a government-approved payment processor that’s able to authenticate EBT purchases with a PIN entry system. The company also helps clients navigate the authorization process the government requires.
Forage, which Herrmann says is “one of the first companies to evolve the technology underlying online EBT,” has more than 50 customers. It works with grocers like Grocerist, FlashFood and Hub on the Hill, and it has a major partnership with Shopify that allows all merchants on that platform to accept SNAP online.
Looking forward, Herrmann hopes that eventually every online grocer will take SNAP, giving more options to the 42 million Americans who receive the food assistance benefits. Sure, some people will always want to browse grocery stores, pick out their produce and find meal inspiration as they walk the aisles — but online EBT shopping can make life a lot easier for recipients who have transportation or mobility issues.
Above all, Herrmann says SNAP recipients should have the same purchasing options as everyone else.
“In the coming years, we hope that customers won't have to ask or search on a website to determine whether EBT is accepted,” she says. “Instead, we want online EBT to be ubiquitous so that it's just assumed.”