About seven years ago, Justin Intal found himself in a hard place, one failed business down and in need of some help. He signed up for federal food assistance, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which helps individuals and households purchase food and supplement their diets.
In doing so, Intal joined a huge group of Americans who rely on full or partial government assistance to feed themselves and their families. Currently, this includes more than 41 million SNAP users (you might see SNAP used synonymously with EBT, which is the technical term for the electronic system used to pay for federal benefits). It also includes 6 million recipients of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which is a division of government benefits providing nutritional and health assistance to eligible, low-income pregnant and postpartum people and to children under five. Most recently, the amount of EBT users grew to include 2 million households receiving pandemic EBT (P-EBT) assistance, as well — the program doles out additional food benefits to families with children who would normally receive free school lunches but couldn’t because of closures.
That immense market of users can use their government benefits to purchase select food at about 250,000 stores nationwide. But, in a startling outdated reality for a digital era obsessed with online markets, less than 100 retailers offer the option to use that money for online grocery purchasing. Many use the delivery app Instacart to process orders, Intal explained.
The number probably sounds shockingly low. It is, and that’s a problem, Intal explained. Not every retailer accepts EBT payments to begin with, let alone online ones. This decreased food access impacts a diverse group of people, including those who live in food scarce areas with few grocery stores, can’t physically leave their homes, or lack access to personal or public transportation. Lower-income communities and people with disabilities often face increased food insecurity, and 26 percent of SNAP users are on disability benefits.
Enter Forage, a self-described “internet infrastructure for government social programs” that helps retailers process EBT payments online, thereby hoping to address these access issues. Intal co-founded the company alongside Victor Fimbres, who was also a former SNAP recipient.
Intal and Fimbres wanted to help SNAP recipients use their benefits in easier, more accessible ways. While the federal government does offer some delivery assistance to communities, enabling wider online grocery delivery and supporting independent grocers to process these online orders can fill the nutritional gaps for all of kinds of EBT users, according to Intal.
Long before starting Forage, Intal noticed this problem come up even more as the demand for online grocery options spread alongside COVID-19 (and demand continues to rise). It added to concerns he already saw in his personal experiences and online, after starting a Facebook group for fellow EBT users in 2019. It served as a resource for people to share their own grocery habits, advice, and issues with the government resource. While his intention with the group wasn’t to build a product, it eventually led Intal and others to create the first iteration of Forage, an app called Forage Grocery founded in 2020 and released in January 2021.
The current iteration of Forage, conceptualized in the wake of pandemic food insecurity, seeks to simply make it easier for more grocers to sign up and implement EBT online purchasing in their own stores, or register with larger online grocery platforms, like Shopify or Instacart, that have already done the bulk of the work to institute online EBT payment processing. It acts as a kind of middleman, assisting retailers through the tangled process of getting federal authorization to process EBT payments and implement website software for secure payment processing, allowing them to accept the payments.
“The biggest hurdle is just ensuring guidance on being approved and certified by the government,” Intal said. He explained that the process for accepting EBT payments is “technically complex”, a multi-step process that involves sifting through hundred-page documents and government forms. The process first approves businesses as a SNAP retailer offering staple food items (like basic vegetables, dairy, and cereals), and then verifies that they meet the requirements for online purchasing specifically.
“The USDA enabled online EBT SNAP acceptance [in 2019]. But, again, the guidance in the process is pretty complex. It can take about 12 to 18 months and thousands of person hours. Typically only large grocery large retailers like Amazon and Walmart, have had resources to get this done,” Intal said.
“We’re working with the government,” he explained. “We’re here to make [the government’s] jobs easier. They do have their own challenges, and Forage is here to support them.”
After going through the federal approval process, the retailer has to then incorporate a secure payment processing system that works along with the intricacies of EBT cards, including unique verification pin numbers for each user processed through a USDA-approved web form. “What that does is authenticates who the consumer is, or the receiver of the benefits, and verifies how much he or she has in their cart,” Intal explained.
Because of these security demands, and the fact that EBT benefits have limits on what food items can be purchased, many retailers allow EBT users to place online pick-up orders but require actual payments to be made in store. That’s not helpful for those who can’t access the retailers to begin with, since they still have to find the time and resources to get to brick and mortar stores. Instead, Forage offers its own, easily-implemented technology that allows for secure online purchasing, Intal explained. “You can think about it like Stripe, or PayPal, but for EBT,” he said. “Our API is really simple, in that any developer and grocer can just add it to their website. It’s just a few lines of code.” Retailers can use the already designed Forage Checkout service to accept online orders of EBT cards and associated pin numbers on their own websites.
Forage also connects smaller retailers with larger e-commerce merchants, like its partner Shopify. “Farmers markets, or small businesses, or even small mom-and-pop groceries who are on Shopify — we’ve already actually built the technology there. So they just have to send the application [for approval to process SNAP online] to the USDA,” Intal said. The company can assist applicants with inventory catalogs to ensure that the products are SNAP approved, and even works with other kinds of e-commerce sites who address food waste by providing reclaimed food to those in need, like its partnership with Flashfood. It’s important to note that SNAP benefits can’t cover delivery costs or service fees that might be charged by third party apps.
Forage is attempting to address both sides of the EBT online purchasing gap, from the larger institutional limitations that make getting approval a long, sometimes daunting, process to the need for retailers of all sizes to accept online ordering, in order to expedite a process the government already started. And in doing so, Forage hopes it can make grocery shopping a little more accessible, Intal said.
He explained that the rise of online grocery shopping is actually more of a perfect fit for EBT users and SNAP recipients than one might think. “The reason why is that one in four EBT recipients are on disability,” Intal said. “Many of them are homebound. They lack transportation, or live in food deserts, without any easy access to grocery stores. The ability to do grocery shopping online, with their SNAP, is a complete game changer for them.”