Business

Food stamps, quality concerns may keep low-income shoppers offline

Boston, MA - 8/22/2017 - Sisters Cruz Sanchez (cq), left, of Mattapan, and Frances Rosado (cq), of Dorchester, shop. Tropical Foods, in Roxbury, caters to an international community. Customers are asked about a possible food delivery service in the area. Photo by Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff Topic: tropicalfoods Reporter: Lauren Feiner
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Sisters Cruz Sanchez of Mattapan (left) and Frances Rosado of Dorchester shopped for groceries. Tropical Foods, in Roxbury, caters to an international community.

A quick bus ride from her Roxbury home can bring Jocelyne Joseph closer to the familiar food of her native Haiti. Standing in the produce section of Tropical Foods supermarket, Joseph picks up a breadfruit, a bumpy, green, nutrient-rich staple of the Caribbean not always stocked by grocery store chains.

On Melnea Cass Boulevard outside Dudley Square, the locally owned Tropical Foods caters to a mostly immigrant and largely low-income population. The bins around Joseph are filled with fruits and vegetables — green quenepas, or “Spanish limes,” still on a vine, narrow and bulbous African root vegetables, and vibrant slices of pumpkin for eating, not decorating.

Like many regular shoppers, the 56-year-old immigrant likes to choose her own produce; her daughter, Wesline, used to shop regularly with her mother, but recently moved to Charlestown and now spreads her shopping among three grocery stores, looking for sales.

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“I have six kids, so sometimes it’s a hassle,” said Wesline Joseph, a cook who is currently unemployed.

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The Josephs live in neighborhoods with few supermarket options for low-income shoppers. Some advocates have promoted a convenience long used by wealthier shoppers to help bring affordable, healthy food to the poor: online home delivery.

Indeed, the takeover of Whole Foods by Amazon.com has raised expectations that an e-commerce giant known for low prices and speedy delivery would help bridge this food gap. Earlier this year, Amazon cut the price of its Prime membership service, which includes free delivery, to customers receiving government benefits such as food stamps, to $5.99 a month.

But seen through the experience of Tropical Foods, online shopping and home delivery will be a tough sell to some low-income shoppers. The store estimates 70 percent of its customers pay with food stamps, and it sources some items from Africa and South America.

“People are looking for that visceral experience, walking in, smelling, seeing,” said John Santos, the general manager at Tropical Foods, who previously worked at Whole Foods.

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Santos said mainstream markets are unlikely to stock foods Tropical Foods customers want, such as mamey, a fruit with rich orange flesh from Central America that he sells for $2.99 a pound. And if they do, those novelties are likely to be priced much higher. The avocados here are shiny lime-colored fruits grown in Florida, compared with the familiar rough shell of California origin, and cost $2 each, compared with $2.99 online at Whole Foods for the same Florida avocados.

But that doesn’t mean customers with less disposable income are skimping on quality.

Tropical Foods general manager John Santos held the popular quenepas, or Spanish lime, brought in from the Dominican Republic.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Tropical Foods general manager John Santos held the popular quenepas, or Spanish lime, brought in from the Dominican Republic.

“Lower-income customers are super focused on quality, even more so I think than high-income customers, because they want to make sure that every dollar they spend on food is on something that’s going to last,” said Sutton Kiplinger Greater Boston regional director of the Food Project, a nonprofit that supplies locally sourced food to Roxbury and Dorchester. “That’s something I’d imagine that can be a little tricky with online sales. I know that so many of the companies are still trying to figure out how to handle quality and freshness in that model.”

There is also a major logistical problem facing low-income shoppers who want to buy groceries online. They can’t use food stamps to pay for online orders for home delivery, since government benefits need to be processed at the point of sale, such as at a store.

The US Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federal food stamp program, is launching a pilot for online grocery shopping in early 2018. The test run will have 10 retailers — including Amazon — and be available to food stamp holders in seven states.

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But Kiplinger pointed out the pilot project has a stumbling block: Shoppers cannot use the food stamps for delivery fees. Many delivery services charge a fee and require a minimum order amount. For Peapod, for example, the minimum order is $60 and the delivery fee $6.95. Wegmans is rolling out home delivery through Instacart in select markets, with offers starting at $5.99, on orders of $35 or more.

“Depending on how high [delivery fees] are, that could be an issue for some customers,” Kiplinger said.

She remembers when the farmers market run by the Food Project first accepted Electronic Benefit Transfer, or EBT, payments, it took some time to figure out how to process them. Now, their use is well-accepted, and the program is so popular for getting fresh foods into the hands of low-income families that the state of Massachusetts even provides matching funds for purchases made through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program at farmers markets.

“Any expansion and opportunity to increase SNAP benefits is a good thing for food equity,” Kiplinger said.

Another challenge for home delivery is large apartment buildings that do not have a secure place to leave groceries. Delivery services such as Peapod typically require customers to be available to receive some products, although Peapod says it offers unattended delivery service to “a secure area outside your home.”

Peapod delivers to all ZIP codes in Boston, and officials said the company can serve both urban and suburban shoppers.

Carrie Bienkowski, chief marketing officer for Peapod, said home delivery has one clear advantage for customers worried about freshness. The company keeps its home-delivery products at warehouses, where it is easier to store various foods at the right temperatures.

“A true produce expert would tell you that storing all of the fruits and vegetables in a single room at room temperature is one of the least optimal ways of managing a fresh produce supply chain,” Bienkowski said.

On a recent Tropical Foods visit, Cruz Sanchez of Mattapan, who said she does not use food stamps, considered food delivery until she heard about the fee.

“Every time they deliver, it’s not free? You have to pay? Oh, no, I don’t have the money for that,” Sanchez said.

Other shoppers at Tropical Foods said they would miss the intangible aspects of trips to the store. Ineabelle Rivera, of the South End, said her walk to the grocery store gives her exercise.

“We keep complaining that we are overweight and we keep ordering everything online — we don’t move anymore,” Rivera said.

For Khandker Islam of Dorchester, who was shopping with his wife and two children, it’s about something even more invaluable.

“I would not like online shopping because [going to the store] is the option to spend some time with my family,” he said.

Sisters Jennifer Ortiz (left) and Lisbel Tejada choose a Florida avocado while shopping at Tropical Foods.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff
Sisters Jennifer Ortiz (left) and Lisbel Tejada choose a Florida avocado while shopping at Tropical Foods.

Lauren Feiner can be reached at lauren.feiner@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauren_feiner.