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Online grocery shopping is growing rapidly and has been heralded as a potential solution to food insecurity. Supermarkets are increasing their online presence, and some have joined the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) pilot program aimed at increasing online grocery access among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants. Although both the growth of the online grocery industry and the launch of the USDA pilot program are steps in the right direction for greater food access, it is worth asking how these initiatives will address food access among low-income consumers. This paper aims to answer the following questions: does online grocery shopping reduce or eliminate food access barriers for low-income consumers? Does it introduce new barriers? Does online grocery shopping have the potential to reshape the definition of a food desert? Using Hilary Shaw’s (2006) categorization of food access barriers—ability, asset, attitude—as a framework, online grocery shopping motivations were reviewed, and a case study on current practices at Kroger, Wal-Mart, and Amazon Fresh was conducted. The results suggested that none of the retailers’ current practices significantly reduce the barriers that low-income consumers are likely to experience when trying to shop online. Although the online channel eliminates the physical barrier of having to carry groceries, it in turn introduces new barriers, such as sensory risk aversion to buying perishables online, the necessity of possessing relevant technological skills, and having access to a computer. This paper proposes a new term, “digital food desert,” to define (1) a community without access to online grocery due to infrastructure constraints, or (2) a community with access to online grocery, but whose market manifests the conditions of a physical food desert online.
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