A Reminder: SNAP Users are People, too 


March 31, 2023

I began working at Fresh Market the fall of my senior year, in the heart of the pandemic. Every day, I would go to work, scanning and bagging the groceries of whoever came into my line. People would bring all sorts of items. I was never one to judge what people purchased. I simply would scan and bag, push the button for payment, hand the receipt to the customer, and move on to the next person in line.  

Occasionally, the flow of checkout would ebb. Sometimes, I was to blame—I pushed the wrong button, double scanned an item, or couldn’t quite figure out exactly what kind of apples my customer wanted to purchase. Other times, it was something out of my control: the customer input the wrong pin, or they left their wallet in the car. One thing that always stopped the flow was the use of EBT cards. American Express credit card holders could tap their cards and have their transactions processed in a matter of seconds. But every time a customer would come with their Georgia peach-adorned EBT card, the pin pad would malfunction. The customer would have to swipe at least twice, and I might possibly have to call my manager to override the system so my register would process the transaction.  

The extended process didn’t bother me at first– I figured it was a coincidence. After I continued to work for the rest of my senior year, the “ebb with EBT” became a pattern. I didn’t pay much attention to the occasional malfunctions, but I started to notice that the customers were uncomfortable when this occurred. They would pause, not understanding why they had to swipe again or why I would call my manager. What was wrong with trying to purchase groceries with their EBT cards? Most customers wouldn’t say a word, as other customers’ attention focused on them, curious about what the holdup was. The unwarranted stares were the last thing these customers wanted or needed to feel as they ran their errands for the day.  

Their discomfort made me uncomfortable. Every time I saw the customer swipe the EBT card, I would remain apologetic as I asked them to swipe their card again. This is also an issue that seemed to happen more at Fresh Market than at other grocery stores. One of my EBT customers kept a cheery disposition when he had to swipe his card a second time, saying to me “I never have to swipe twice at Kroger or Publix. Only here.” The customers did not need my pity, but I felt that I had to apologize on behalf of Fresh Market for creating inconvenience surrounding something that has been stigmatized for far too long and widening the socioeconomic divide that splits our country.  

The ebb of EBT in the checkout line is one of many inequities faced by Americans who use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The federal government (i.e., the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees SNAP) needs to take necessary steps to protect EBT card users. Although SNAP benefits vary from state to state, the USDA should mandate certain standards that protect EBT card users. A great place to start is by updating EBT cards with EMV chips.  

Earlier this month, Sen. Ron Wyden  (D-OR) called on lawmakers to increase the security of EBT cards, as the magnetic strips that remain on these cards leave EBT users more susceptible to fraud. October 1, 2015 was the official adoption day of the EMV chip reader technology in the United States. The switch from magnetic strips to EMV chips for the commercial and bank cards we use seemingly happened overnight and without a lot of awareness surrounding it. Americans understood that the chip reader prevented fraud more effectively than magnetic strips did. According to Visa, Americans saw a significant decrease in fraud— 87 percent lower in March 2019 than in September 2015.  

Eight years later, people pay with their phones and Apple Watches via tap or contactless payment, but EBT users are still susceptible to fraud— and it happens all the time. One of the main concerns for SNAP/EBT users when asked to swipe twice at Fresh Market is fraudulent charges on the limited funds they receive each month.  

It’s impossible to know exactly how much money is lost because everyone doesn’t report fraud, but millions of dollars are lost each year in every state. Until last December, the federal government was prohibited from reimbursing SNAP beneficiaries who have been robbed.  But Congress changed the law, allowing the SNAP program to replace funds stolen between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2024, after states submit and have approved a plan for such reimbursement. All states have submitted plans, but only four are approved so far:  Alabama, Iowa, Maryland and Vermont. Maryland and Vermont started to replace the stolen funds in March; the others will start in May and June. But not yet in Georgia. 

Just like everyone else, people with SNAP EBT cards must feed their families, deserve to go to the grocery store without added hassle, and live a life as best as they can in their current economic situation. They deserve to be protected from fraud, too. 

If you have a bank credit card, you are thoroughly protected from theft. The bank tells you about an attempted wrongful use, and disallows it. But only now are SNAP beneficiaries starting to be protected (and they will have to apply to get their benefits back). They of course are most likely to face real hardship if their benefits are stolen, and Congress should make the fund replacement program permanent. When will we decide that people with low incomes deserve as much convenience as anyone else and protect every American regardless of how they pay for their groceries?