New & Next: SNAP Delivery Comes to Denver

Turner Wyatt of Denver Food Rescue is ratcheting up a program to deliver food directly to those in need -- by bicycle.
You might know Denver Food Rescue as the bike-toting food recovery and delivery nonprofit; you'd recognize their volunteers as the cyclists cranking along as they haul a few hundred pounds of produce across the city on their white bicycle trailers. The organization recently took on an additional identity as it became the first group ever authorized in Colorado to deliver food purchased with SNAP (food stamps) directly to the homes of elderly and disabled folks. The decision comes after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has faced increasing pressure to make SNAP more accessible to the nearly 24 million Americans living in food deserts, and the one in five SNAP participants who is elderly or disabled.

One of only five organizations nationwide to be accepted into the year-long pilot program, Denver Food Rescue (DFR) will add the new service to its current operations, which have grown significantly over the last two years. Currently, DFR picks up food (mainly fresh produce) that would otherwise go to waste from grocery stores and wholesalers and delivers it by bike directly to resident-led free grocery programs at schools and other community centers in low-income neighborhoods. These deliveries are done by a team of more than 120 volunteers, who face the elements on their bikes 365 days per year, hauling an average of 1,000 pounds per day. With 12 of these No Cost Grocery Programs (NCGPs) operating weekly, DFR provides healthy food for more than 500 families every week.

In the new SNAP delivery program, users will be able to place orders for their groceries online or over the phone, which will be delivered after DFR purchases the selected items from a local wholesaler. Under USDA rules, the food must be sold at the same price that DFR paid for it, and only a small delivery charge will be collected by DFR. When the first delivery is made in Jan. 2017, it will be the first transaction of its kind in Colorado, and one of the first in the country.

Until now, strict federal SNAP guidelines prevented online businesses from delivering food purchased with SNAP, but the new Farm Bill changed course in response to increasing concerns about how the more than 8 million elderly or disabled SNAP participants actually get to the grocery store. Technology also hindered SNAP delivery, but now mobile SNAP card readers and receipt printers give nonprofit food deliverers the ability to accept the payment at the doorstep of the participant.

The fact that Denver is one of a few places that the pilot is being launched exemplifies the city's leadership in the healthy food access movement. Last year, the City and County of Denver's Office of Economic Development hired the first-ever manager of food systems development to coordinate the countless sustainable and healthy food focused efforts. Many of these efforts are connected in some way to the Denver Sustainable Food Policy Council, a council of residents and professionals that advises the Mayor's Office on food-related policies. The city's Healthy Corner Store Initiative aims to enroll 50 local convenience stores to sell healthier options by the end of 2017. Most importantly, Denver residents are more organized than ever, demanding better access to healthy foods through community-based efforts, nonprofits and government.

There's plenty of work yet to be done, too, as Denver and Colorado don't do as well in healthy food access as one might expect. Colorado is in the bottom five states nationally for eligible-but-unenrolled SNAP participation, and nearly half of Denver's low- and moderate-income residents lack access to a full-service grocery store. With this new SNAP delivery authorization, DFR hopes to develop the conversation about how food delivery can increase access to healthy food and allow federal SNAP dollars to have the greatest impact possible.

Turner Wyatt is executive director of Denver Food Rescue.
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