Minnesotans who buy groceries using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits can soon pay for them via curbside pickup or delivery, letting them buy groceries while minimizing the risk of picking up COVID-19 while shopping inside.

Almost 2,300 retailers are eligible for grants of up to $500 each in federal CARES Act funding to buy wireless mobile equipment — essentially, portable cash registers — that can process SNAP purchases made on electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards.

Most grocery stores now require SNAP recipients to shop inside. Walmart and Amazon offer options for ordering and paying for groceries online, but retailers wanting to provide that service must get approval from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's retail division.

"This equipment will provide safer ways for SNAP recipients to purchase food," Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead said in a statement. "Ideally, by early next year, we will have thousands of retailers offering this convenient option for purchasing food throughout the state."

More than 400,000 Minnesotans are on SNAP, said Leah Gardner, policy director for Hunger Solutions Minnesota, which advocates for food programs for those in need.

A large percentage of SNAP participants are seniors or people with disabilities or other health conditions that put them at increased risk of hospitalization and death from COVID, according to the Human Services Department. Those working often have jobs with a higher risk of transmission, such as low-wage health care, retail and restaurant jobs.

"I am really happy to hear that this is off the ground; it's something that we've been hearing firsthand from SNAP households that they have a need for this," Gardner said.

Vulnerable people "ideally should not and don't want to be going into stores," she said. "It's been a big concern that there are people out there making a choice between food and exposure." Making SNAP purchases without having to enter stores, she said, "is a big relief to those families."

A customer making an EBT purchase must provide a private pincode, said Jamie Pfuhl, president of the Minnesota Grocers Association. The new wireless equipment can process those codes, as well as track which items are allowable purchases under SNAP guidelines. The equipment also can be used in making curbside sales to customers using other forms of payment.

Retailers can apply for the grants, issued by the Human Services Department in partnership with the Grocers Association, through December 30. Grocers who bought wireless point-of-sale machines after June 1 can apply for reimbursement. The grants will be especially helpful for small grocery stores throughout the state that operate on thin profit margins, Gardner said.

Retailers can apply for grants or reimbursement for mobile point-of-sale machines purchased June 1 through Dec. 30 at tinyurl.com/y5saobaw . All eligible retailers who apply by the deadline will receive grant reimbursement of up to $500 for these purchases, according to state officials.

For more information and technical assistance, visit the Minnesota Grocers Association website at mngrocers.com or call 651-228-0973.