Independent Grocers are Critical to Overcoming SNAP Healthy Food Access Hurdles

July 1, 2021

By Molly PfaffenrothNGA Senior Director of Government Relations

The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) recently released a study on the barriers to healthy eating experienced by participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The barriers cited in the “Barriers that Constrain the Adequacy of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) Allotments” report include factors such as high costs for healthy foods, unavailability of transportation to the grocery store and lack of knowledge about how to store or cook with healthy foods. 

While considering the findings from the study that 88% of SNAP participants encounter hurdles to a healthy diet—as defined by “eating a variety of food from all five food groups (fruits, vegetables, grains, dairy and protein foods) … also … not eating too much saturated fat, salt or sugar, and getting the right amount of calories for you”—it would be amiss to ignore the essential role of independent community grocers in providing SNAP participants with access to healthy foods.  

Independent community grocers are unique in that they are often located in rural and hard-to-reach areas, many of which would be classified as food deserts if the stores were not present. Independents can reach communities that big-box stores do not find profitable to serve. Here, we’ll discuss the top-cited barriers to healthy eating from the report and pinpoint the areas where independent grocers can help to reduce these barriers through partnership in federal nutrition programs. 

Certainly, there is much more work to be done to completely diminish the healthy eating gap for low-income communities, but a major component of creating a more accessible food system is investing in federal nutrition programs and independent grocers who are the cornerstones of local communities across the nation.

Top-Cited Barriers to Healthy Eating in SNAP 

  • 61% – Cost of healthy foods 
  • 30% – Time to prepare meals from scratch 
  • 19%– Transportation to the grocery store 
  • 18% – Distance to the grocery store 
  • 16% – Knowledge about healthy foods 
  • 15% – Physical disability or limitations 
  • 14% – Storage for fresh or cooked foods 
  • 11% – Kitchen equipment 
  • 11%– Cooking skills 

Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program 

The No. 1 barrier to healthy eating cited by participants in the study was cost; 61% of SNAP participants named the affordability of foods that are part of a healthy diet as a barrier to consuming these foods. 

Independent community grocers have long been investing in approaches to help provide greater access to cost-effective healthy foods. An approach with much potential for future success are nutrition incentives programs, such as the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP). Originally established in the 2014 Farm Bill as the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program (FINI), this program provides federal grant funding for non-profit and local government agency grantees to work with local grocers on projects at their stores to provide incentives on qualifying fruits and vegetables to SNAP participants. 

The projects provide participating grocers with the ability to offer free or discounted produce to SNAP customers. Projects vary on a case-by-case basis, but many successful models allow for a 50% discount on produce at the time of sale or future purchase, or a voucher for free produce when the customer comes back to the grocery store. Not only does this incentivize SNAP participants to purchase healthy fruits and vegetables, but it also invests in the local economy by bringing customers back to independent grocery stores which are the heart of communities. 


The second-highest hurdle to healthy eating in SNAP was lack of time to prepare meals, cited by 30% of study participants. While grocers are innovating by providing ready-made meals and pre-cut fruits and vegetables for customers, they also partner with local SNAP agencies to educate SNAP participants about tips for healthy cooking and how to choose easy-to-cook-with foods. Educational programs like this are made possible through government funded SNAP-Education programs. SNAP Education also helps SNAP participants learn how to get the best bang for their buck when shopping with electronic benefit transfer (EBT) benefits.  

It is also a game-changer when it comes to providing low-income shoppers with knowledge about healthy foods—another major barrier cited in the study, at 16%. Many grocers work with local “SNAP-Ed” providers to share recipes, healthy food samples, cooking demos and classes in store and online. In many cases, local grocery stores even have on-site nutritionists that help educate consumers and provide greater access to healthy foods. 

SNAP Online Purchasing 

In 2014, the Farm Bill that reauthorizes federal farm and nutrition programs included language to create a SNAP online purchasing pilot to test the feasibility of retailers accepting SNAP EBT payments on their websites. The pilot was launched in April 2019 and expanded rapidly in spring 2020 due to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.  

SNAP online purchasing is critical to combatting transportation and distance-to-store barriers since it gives grocers the ability to allow SNAP participants to shop online on their websites and then deliver the groceries to shoppers’ homes. According to USDA’s study, participants cited lack of transportation (19%) and distance to the grocery store (18%) as barriers to healthy eating, and 15 percent citing physical disabilities.  

Unfortunately, at this time SNAP online purchasing is mainly offered by Amazon and Walmart due to these companies being original pilot retailers and not needing to have worked through an extensive application process after the pilot was expanded. Many independent grocers also experience financial and technical constraints to offer SNAP online purchasing, while they also must work through the application and testing process, which usually takes many months to finalize. It is essential that Congress provide additional assistance to small and mid-size retailers to participate in SNAP online purchasing, as these businesses often serve areas of the country that Amazon and Walmart do not serve. Launching more independents in the program will allow more SNAP participants this important shopping option for purchasing healthy foods. 

Healthy Food Financing Initiative 

Another important federal program that helps grocery stores invest in providing healthy food access to local communities is the Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI), a program created in 2010 that allows grocers to apply for federal grant funding to establish projects designed to increase healthy and equitable food access. There has been great success with this program at grocery stores across the country that have received funding for innovative ideas. 

From establishing food lockers at a community center, to building a grocery store in one of the poorest areas in the country with significant health disparities, to purchasing a delivery truck to service neighborhoods that are considered food deserts, grocers are using HFFI funding to do some pretty amazing work to increase healthy food access in their surrounding communities. Grocery stores are a vital player in these communities, especially when they may be the only access point for fresh produce, whole grains, meat and dairy for many miles. 

Tax Credits 

Some of the aforementioned methods used by grocers with HFFI funding and SNAP online purchasing demonstrate the innovative ways grocers are helping to bridge the transportation gap for serving hard-to-reach areas of the country with healthy foods. When discussing barriers to healthy food access, it is important to keep in mind that a person cannot acquire healthy foods if they do not have access to the grocery store. That’s why it is so critical that Congress continues to invest in programs like HFFI and SNAP online purchasing, while also investing in other methods to increase independent grocers’ ability to move into food deserts and hard-to-reach areas.  

Legislative proposals to create tax credits for independent grocers building or renovating in food desert areas are a step in the right direction, as they would help incentivize small and mid-size grocers to move into these areas. Not only does investing in grocery stores in these communities increase access to healthy foods, but it also has a positive trickle-down effect on local economies. According to a recent National Grocers Association study, SNAP is responsible for nearly 200,000 grocery industry jobs and nearly 45,000 jobs in supporting industries. It also provides almost $7 billion in annual grocery industry wages and more than $9 billion wages for supporting industries. 

Independent community grocers are pivotal partners in federal nutrition programs, providing food access and combatting nutrition insecurity. While the approaches outlined here are not the only solutions to helping SNAP participants increase access to healthy foods, investing in independent grocers is an essential component. USDA and Congress should continue to invest in independent grocers and support their work in federal nutrition programs to build a healthier and brighter future for families in need across the country.