SNAP to Health Interviews Laura Fox on Baltimarket and SNAP

Posted on by Vanessa Hoffman MPH, RD

Laura Fox is the co-coordinator for the Baltimore City Health Department’s Virtual Supermarket Project, also known as Baltimarket. She answered some questions from SNAP to Health about how Baltimarket works, how people can use SNAP benefits in the program, and where it’s headed in the future.

What is the Virtual Supermarket Program (Baltimarket)?

Baltimarket, the Virtual Supermarket Program, is a program where residents in Baltimore City, including SNAP beneficiaries can order their groceries online and pick them up at their local library or elementary school.

How does it work?

It works in two ways: 1) either residents come to the library and we can help them place their order online or 2) residents can place their order themselves, following some pretty easy instructions and promotional codes.

How does the program process payments?

Residents only pay for the groceries they receive, so they don’t pay any delivery fees. They can pay with cash, credit, debit and Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), using mobile electronic card readers.

How does it work for online delivery using SNAP benefits?

The Virtual Supermarket Program is the only program in the country, that to my knowledge, that allows for online delivery of food and is able to take food stamps. Based on SNAP regulations, the EBT card must be swiped at the point of receiving the food. You can’t put it in ahead of time or call in the number. It’s allowed because everyone pays with their EBT cards when they pick up their groceries.

Where are the Baltimarket sites located?

We currently have four sites throughout the city. We have three at libraries and one at an elementary school. What’s really great about the Enoch Pratt Free Libraries in Baltimore City is that they are centrally located in neighborhoods. They’re not your grandmother’s library anymore; people are there using the computers and other resources. Libraries are terrific community resources, so why not be able to get your groceries at an easy, familiar location? This way you don’t have to travel so far out of your neighborhood. The main criteria we use for determining our sites for the Virtual Supermarket Program are being in a food desert location, living more than one mile from the nearest supermarket, and in low-income neighborhoods that have low vehicle ownership. We also look at the health indicators and outcomes of the neighborhoods such as diabetes, stroke, cardiovascular disease, as overall indicators of the health environment of that area.

Why is Baltimarket at libraries?

The idea came from a Johns Hopkins student’s capstone project; I believe she was a special assistant here at the Health Department. Her original idea was to use churches and have people order their groceries at churches, but when we piloted it, we found that in many neighborhoods people weren’t willing to go to other peoples’ churches to get groceries. If it wasn’t their church they didn’t want to go there. That’s why libraries were chosen as locations because they are great places in the community which everyone feels comfortable visiting.

What’s the main goal of the program?

The real reason that we have this program is that 1) there weren’t grocery stores nearby in many neighborhoods and 2) we were finding that a lot of people were paying a lot of money to get to and from the grocery store. For example, they might take the bus or walk there, but to get home with all of the groceries, people were taking “hacks”, which are the unofficial taxicabs in the city. They were charged $10-15 just to return from the grocery store. That’s why we really consider this program a health equity program. Let’s say you’re wealthier, and you have a car, it would cost you, maybe $0.05 worth of gas to get to and from a grocery store. If you have less money and you don’t have access to a car, you’re going to be paying $10-15 to go to a grocery store and that’s not really fair. The other thing with that is in terms of eating healthfully, if you’re paying $10-15 to go to the grocery store, how many times a month are you going to go? You’re probably only going to visit the grocery store once a month, so you’re going to load up on nonperishable items. You’re not necessarily going to get your fresh food that you should be eating, your produce, your healthy meats, your low-fat dairy, those items won’t last, so you might get a little bit of these products, but you’re really going to need to rely on the other food items to last you a whole month.

How did the program choose the participating grocery stores?

One reason we use Santoni’s Super Market is that we needed a grocery store that already had an online interface set up. Santoni’s Super Market which is an independent Baltimore grocery store is a wonderful supermarket. They were able to take on this kind of program because they already were doing home delivery for many, many years, so ordering online, putting it together, having it sent out in the truck was not something new. Also, we needed a grocery store that would be willing to waive the delivery fee and have the Health Department set up a reduced fee delivery system. Santoni’s was able to do this. The Health Department pays Santoni’s a reduced delivery fee for the grocery orders, but the more orders there are, the less we pay, so the hope is that as we get really large, we won’t have to pay delivery fees anymore. Lastly we needed to see if they would accept EBT. As I said earlier, the big thing with EBT is the barrier of being able to use your food stamps to purchase online. Santoni’s already had a mobile card swiper for being able to take credit cards offsite and now they take EBT offsite. When the groceries are delivered to each site, residents swipe their EBT card and put in their pin when they receive their food. This way we are in full compliance with USDA regulations. If  you want to also get toilet paper and paper towels when you were getting your groceries, since those aren’t accepted with SNAP benefits, Santoni’s will run two different receipts so you can get those other items and just pay cash, debit or credit for them.   

What’s the incentive for grocery stores to participate? 

When the program was starting, in the pilot phase, Rob Santoni (CEO of Santoni’s Inc.) got a great deal of media attention for this initiative. It’s almost like you’re getting free promotional materials for your business across the entire city by doing a program like this. You get people to use your store for groceries who wouldn’t necessarily be doing so. Most of our participants have never been to Santoni’s Super Market before; that’s not where they would shop. This is a new market for them, in terms of new customers – a new market share. Lastly, as the program really grows and takes off, it has become a source of a great deal of new profit for them. Rob Santoni took a chance with the program; he didn’t know if he would lose money or what would happen. But I think the real reason he started was that he has great civic engagement and was willing to participate in this innovative program.

Have there been other grocery stores interested in this?

Yes. We’ve talked with local and independent grocery stores in Baltimore, but I think one of the big barriers is not already having online interfaces set up for ordering groceries. That’s a big cost barrier to starting something up. We have had conversations with Giant (Giant runs Peapod) and Safeway about home delivery. A little bit of it has to do with finances since our market basket is about $40 whereas theirs are normally much higher than that. They’re not willing to do a program like this unless they can get paid ahead of time. They’re not willing to take the risk like Santoni’s that someone’s not going to pick up their groceries. They stated that if EBT could be accepted online, it is something they would be interested in and willing to take on. Peapod in Chicago opened up many new zip codes in low income areas but they found that no one was using the grocery home delivery service. I think one of the main reasons for that is that if you don’t take SNAP, which may be a large portion of the area population, then you’re going to be missing out on a large portion of the population. Peapod and Safeway, they’re all paid ahead of time with credit cards. All of the payment is done upfront. They don’t have to worry about what happens if someone orders groceries and then doesn’t have any money left on their card when they come to pick it up. Getting paid ahead of time is much better for them.

What is the rate of participation? 

We have about 150 different customers who use the Virtual Supermarket Program. This year we had about 700 orders. So it’s still a very small program. We’ve had over $21,000 worth of groceries purchased in the program.

How has the program changed since it started in 2010?

It started with just two sites in two areas for the first year and then we expanded to two new sites about a year ago. In January of last year we expanded to George Washington Elementary School. In February of last year we expanded to the Cherry Hill library. Initially when using the program you had to come into the library to place your order. You couldn’t just do it from anywhere. In May 2011 we opened it up to having promotion codes so residents could order from any computer. They can now order from work, home, library computers and even smart phones. They still pick up the groceries from the library, which for a lot of people is much closer and right in their neighborhood.

How often do people use the virtual supermarket?

Some people come every single week. We have a lot of every-other-weekers and that just has to do with getting paid for a lot of people. We do have some customers who order food every single week and that’s kind of what you would hope for and want.

How does the program measure success?

In terms of success, we do look at the number of repeat customers, which is how many customers come back at least one more time. We look at our base numbers, which is how many people we get. We have goals set in terms of unique customers and number of orders. We have an evaluation and some of the questions look at how this program increased access to healthy and affordable food. We take that self-report of increased access to healthy foods as one of our main success measures.

Do you partner with nutrition education programs?Currently we do our own nutrition education on site. We have informational handouts, and also do food demos, food tastings, and onsite cooking demonstrations. We were working with the University of Maryland Extension program, but they needed a consistent base of residents to come to their classes. At the time we didn’t have the numbers to support their class. I think once our numbers grow more and we launch some new sites we will be trying to pick up that partnership again because nutrition education alongside food access is the only way behaviors will be able to change.

How does the program promote its services in the community?

We have a full time community organizer, Eric Jackson who spends all his time in the community. He’s at every community event and health fair. He has organized neighborhood groups of food advocates in all of the neighborhoods where we work. These residents promote the program. They speak with their neighbors about the food access issues in their area. They have been moving towards action to really help their own community have access to healthy and affordable food, not just through the Virtual Supermarket Program. We partnered with MICA, the Maryland Institute College of Art, and they have been great at helping us with all of our promotional materials.

Are there any discounts or promotion?

You get $10 off your first order. Then you get $10 off every fourth order after that for healthy food purchases. That’s just to help residents eat healthier foods and make healthier food choices and so they can see what the Health Department deems as healthy foods. Also, they can try some new foods risk-free. We use the Maryland WIC (Special Supplemental Program for Women, Infants and Children) guidelines for that, so basically it’s any fruit or vegetable besides white potatoes and onions, any low fat dairy product (ex. yogurt, milk, cheese), any whole grains (e.g., whole wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice), beans, eggs, and reduced fat peanut butter. It’s a pretty general list. So as long as $10 of their whole order has those healthy food items, they can get that discount. To give an example, let’s say your order is $30. As long as $10 of the order includes foods from the healthy foods list, that meet our criteria and we’ll just take $10 off at the end.  

Can you talk about the program in a larger picture as a way to address the problem of food deserts? Is this a long-term solution?

In many ways I really do think that it is. We are planning on doing some expansion and growth in the next few weeks. We’re planning on expanding to a senior building and our future plans include public housing. When it gets to that level, I think we’ll see the true sustainability and growth of this program because we’re trying to do more of a community based model. What I mean is that with our senior/disabled housing site we’re going to have one of the residents who is computer and tech savvy take everyone’s order and put it in online. He’s going to serve as the Virtual Supermarket Program liaison for his community. The Health Department’s hope and role is to really be there more for technical assistance, so being able to work as the in-between between you and the grocer. You could say, “Hey, we have 300 residents here, we have enough that we can have 15 orders every week, how can we set up a Virtual Supermarket?” Then we work with them to be that technical agent and set up the Virtual Supermarket for them. Then they have to run it and self-sustain it themselves. That way it won’t have to rely heavily on grant funding in the future. This is kind of our 2-3 year plan to not have to rely on grant funding to run this program.

Have your seen any cities or other areas interested in doing something similar?

Yes, definitely. I speak with people from other cities all the time. Someone in Ohio emailed me wanting more information on budgets, and someone else emailed me this week from Oregon. We definitely talk to a lot of people around the country who want to set up programs like the Virtual Supermarket. We’re very open to talking to people about the cost, what it takes to set it up, what are the barriers, and what are things you should think about before setting up. Food access is a really big issue in many parts of the country and we want to do everything we can to help people have better access to healthy and affordable food.

Do you have any advice for how a similar program might be implemented on a larger scale?

Overall I think bringing food and having a Virtual Supermarket is a lot cheaper than necessarily a brick and mortar store. Especially in the short term it is and can be a fast, much less expensive way of bringing healthy, affordable food to residents who really need it.

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