California Food Stamp Demand Surges — But Comes With a Dilemma for Some in Need

Payment cards can only be used in-person, in stores -- requiring some to decide between risking their health or running out of groceries.

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UPDATE: Amazon said on April 28 that it had begun accepting food stamp benefits for grocery purchases. The company directed EBT customers to this website:

New numbers from the California Department of Social Services show applications for CalFresh food assistance benefits -- sometimes called "food stamps" -- have doubled, with 88,602 requests in the last week of March. That compares to 39,145 applications in the same week of 2019.

Some of those families and seniors in need who get approved are encountering an unexpected hurdle in getting much-needed food: they can only use their benefits cards in stores, forcing them to leave the relative safety of home.

Catherine is one of them. The 61-year-old lung cancer patient is staying at home, as the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends. Her condition means she has a very high risk of life-threatening illness if exposed to coronavirus.

But Catherine tells NBC Bay Area she can only use her CalFresh benefits in person, at the grocery store.

“Why hasn't the government made it possible to use your food stamps online when ordering food from a supermarket, to be delivered through Instacart, for example?” she asked us.

We took that question to the Department of Social Services. It confirmed that yes, the current setup requires CalFresh recipients to go to the store. But that could change very soon.

Social Services tells us it applied for federal approval to let CalFresh recipients use their benefits online. On Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Nutrition Service (FNS) approved California's request.

Officials with DSS told NBC Bay Area implementation could happen in just a few weeks.

"The approval received from FNS is contingent upon working with existing FNS approved retailers, Amazon and Walmart," a Social Services spokesperson said via email. "We will continue to work with FNS to bring additional retailers on board. Implementation is expected in late April."

We'll be looking for updates on the state's website, That's where individuals and families can apply for food assistance. The state says the application process takes about ten minutes, and you can get up to $194 per person, per month.

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