Pilot Program Shows Slow Adoption of Online Food Shopping for NYCHA Residents
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23 June 2020

By: Christophe Hille

In July 2018, KK&P partnered in a pilot program targeted at food access and affordability, a project led by Enterprise Community Partners and with support from CUNY’s Graduate School of Public Health and Health Policy. The goal of the pilot was to create positive economic impacts for New Yorkers living in New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) properties by empowering them with new avenues of food procurement, namely collective purchasing strategies and online purchasing for daily grocery needs. 

The key success metrics for the project were that these procurement strategies would save NYCHA residents both time and money relative to their traditional brick-and-mortar grocery shopping. Ancillary benefits that were anticipated (but not the explicit goals) were that the pilot would enhance the residents’ access to healthy, high-quality food and would provide opportunities for food entrepreneurship. The pilot was ultimately launched in June 2019 at the Farragut Houses—a public housing development located between Vinegar Hill, the Navy Yard, and the downtown area of Brooklyn—with the formation of the Farragut Food Club.

A summary report on the pilot was just published in the online journal Sustainability by CUNY’s Nevin Cohen and Katy Tomaino Fraser. One of the major findings was that despite efforts to encourage adoption of online shopping as a tactic to save residents shopping time each week, the team did not see significant uptake of online shopping as a regular practice in the broader Farragut Food Club membership. Additionally, since Amazon’s prices were generally higher when compared to discounted and promoted products at local brick-and-mortar stores, the pilot did not demonstrate that shopping online would produce financial benefits for participants.

One of the primary criteria for residents in considering new grocery shopping strategies had been the option to use SNAP benefits at any given retailer. The Farragut Food Club chose to work with Amazon as the preferred vendor for the pilot explicitly because it was simultaneously launching its own USDA-supported online SNAP redemption pilot. Although this pilot did not identify measurable positive impacts on time and cost savings, as online SNAP redemption moves from the currently limited USDA pilot to being open to all qualified online food retailers, it is expected that public housing residents who are empowered with access to and technical facility for online shopping will derive long-term price and time benefits. This will in part be due to increasing price and service competition among the retailers. Rather than replacing brick-and-mortar shopping, however, online shopping may become a strategic complement to it that increases options and provides flexibility.

Increasing access to online shopping has the potential to increase community resiliency and access to high-quality foods, and mitigate hunger, especially in crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.