The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – commonly known as Food Stamps – is a federal assistance program that helps thousands of qualifying households across the United States get the nutritious foods their families need to stay well-nourished and healthy.

Administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Nutrition Service, and local SNAP offices, the food assistance program has clear and documented guidelines about who qualifies and specific items program benefits can be used to purchase.

6 Important Facts About Food Stamps

  • What Is SNAP?
  • How to Qualify for Food Stamps
  • How to Apply for Food Stamps
  • Receiving Your SNAP Benefits
  • How to Use an EBT Card
  • Other Federal Food Assistance Programs

In addition to providing food stamps, the SNAP program offers nutrition services, education initiatives, and job assistance – all of which are designed to help low-income families develop the skills they need to guarantee a steady supply of healthy food for their households. This is a crucial government food assistance program aimed at reducing hunger and food insecurity across the U.S.

Approximately 38 million Americans receive SNAP benefits, which is roughly 12% of the citizens and residents of the United States. The data changes year by year, but states and areas within the US that have the highest percentage of residents on SNAP assistance are Washington D.C., Mississippi, New Mexico, and West Virginia.

The SNAP program operates at the federal level, yet much of the day-to-day administration is handled by the states. This means that SNAP programs vary in name and eligibility requirements from state to state across the country. Before you begin the application process, contact your SNAP local office to find out the specifics of the program for your area. In most cases, application review happens at the federal level, and then once you are approved for benefits, the state will take over administering those benefits.

History of Food Stamps

The Food Stamp Program started as a way to bridge the gap between a farming surplus and under-nourished citizens in need of food during WWII. Participants bought orange stamps which they used to buy food, and in return received additional blue stamps that could be traded in for specific food items.

Over the next several decades, the Food Stamp Program went through many changes, which were influenced by politics, sociological trends, and food production. To keep a long story short, food stamps eventually transitioned into a welfare program for households in need of help gaining access to the nutrition they needed.

For many years, food stamps were actual coupons issued by the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. These coupons were bound in a booklet and had different denominations: $1 browns, $5 blues, and $10 greens. Benefit recipients could bring the booklet to the grocery store and tear them out for single use purchases.

In the late 90s, food stamps became digital and were no longer issued as printed coupons. Benefits were provided through an Electronic Benefit Transfer debit card (EBT) issued by third-party vendors. These cards have cut down on wait times for new applicants and made it easier for recipients to get their benefits immediately, without having to go to their local Social Security office or wait in the mail for a coupon book. The EBT card has also reduced theft and misuse of food stamp benefits.

In 2008, The Food Stamp Program was officially renamed as part of the Farm Bill, and would henceforth be known as SNAP Benefits (The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program). However, in everyday speech, the term "food stamps" has persisted, and most individuals refer to the program as such even though coupon booklets are no longer used. Food stamps are often erroneously associated with individuals in extreme poverty, but many families in need of extra assistance to purchase food are part of the program. In fact, over 9% of American Households received SNAP benefits during 2017, with over 16% of children living in a home that received SNAP benefits.

6 Important Facts About Food Stamps

If you are thinking of applying for SNAP benefits, you likely have several questions. Here are some of the most important facts you need to know.

What Is SNAP?

SNAP is a food assistance program that provides benefits to qualifying households so that they can buy groceries. Any group of people who live together and purchase food for meals together is considered a household. Benefits are loaded onto a prepaid Electronic Benefits Transfer card, which families can use at participating grocery stores or other approved establishments to buy food, just as if they were using a debit card. New benefits are automatically added to the EBT card each month.

The benefits you receive from participating in the SNAP program are not considered taxable income by the Internal Revenue Service. The amount of benefits an eligible household qualifies for depends on a variety of factors, including household income and household size. Generally, SNAP expects participants to spend roughly 30% of their take-home income on food, so benefits amounts are generally awarded to meet this threshold.

Food stamps eligibility is calculated on an ongoing basis and must be renewed at the end of each certification period You will need to periodically renew your enrollment in the program. Generally, you should receive a notice near the end of each certification period prompting you to begin the process for recertification.

How to Qualify for Food Stamps

Eligibility for the SNAP program is largely based on household income, along with the number of individuals in your household. To apply, you will have to go through a robust approval process. First, a SNAP evaluator will look at your gross monthly household income – your household income before any permitted deductions have been removed. Generally, this number should be below 130% of the poverty level, which usually is higher for larger families and lower for smaller families.

The poverty level, for SNAP purposes, represents the bare minimum income a household needs to earn to cover basic expenses such as food, housing, utilities, and other household expenses. The poverty level is calculated based on the poverty threshold as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau to define the number of people living in poverty across the country.

A quick and easy way to test whether your income meets poverty level qualification is to divide your annual net income by the federal poverty level for your household size, and then multiply that figure by 100. For example, the FPL for a household of three is $21,720. For a family that makes $75,000 in annual net income, dividing 50,000 by 21,720 will give you 2.30. Once multiplied by 100, the result shows you that this family earns 230% of the federal poverty level, so the household would not be eligible for a SNAP benefit award based on income.

The food assistance program will also consider other resources like assets. A good rule of thumb is that all resources a household could use to buy food can be considered an asset. This usually includes money in various types of checking, savings, and money market accounts. In most states, your home, your automobile, your retirement savings, and other personal property will not count as an asset, but make sure to check the guidelines for your state before you apply. In many states, your vehicle is considered a resource and will be subject to a three-step exemption test.

As of September 2020, all applicants for SNAP from the 50 contiguous U.S. states, Guam, American Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands must show a total countable resource amount of less than $2,250 – or less than $3,500 if a member of the household is disabled or age 60 or older –to be approved for SNAP benefits.

The SNAP program also recognizes that not all of a household’s income can be spent on food. Much of a family’s take-home income is needed for other expenses. To account for these additional household costs, SNAP allows an eligible household to claim certain deductions when considering a family’s claim for benefits.

These deductions include, but are not limited to:

  • Earnings deduction equal to 20% of income
  • Dependent care deduction
  • Deduction for child support payments
  • Medical expense deduction, especially for SNAP households with elderly and disabled members
  • Excess shelter deduction – meaning shelter expenses that equal more than half of your take-home pay

Allowable shelter-related costs might include fuel to cook and/or heat with, electricity, water, basic fees for one telephone, home taxes and rent or mortgage, plus interest. Some limits may not apply if you have household members who are classified as disabled or elderly. You can find out more about any of these by checking with your SNAP local office.

On top of income eligibility requirements, anyone within your household ages 18 to 59 must also meet work-related requirements, which may include:

  • Registering for work
  • Not voluntarily reducing hours or quitting a job
  • Participating in appropriate job training or employment programs, if assigned to do so by your state
  • Taking a job if/when offered one

Any able-bodied adult in your eligible household without dependent care responsibilities is required to work for at least 20 hours per week to qualify for food stamps benefits for more than three months within a given 36-month period. Some groups, including seniors, women who are pregnant, and adults who are exempt for mental or physical health reasons are not subject to this requirement.

All able-bodied students between the ages of 18 and 49 can also qualify for SNAP benefits, if they meet appropriate income requirements. They must usually meet at least one of the following criteria:

  • Participate in a state or federally funded work-study program
  • Be a single parent enrolled in classes full-time in addition to being responsible for the care of a dependent child under age 12
  • Be responsible for the care of a household member between the ages of 6 and 11 – and do not have access to child care that allows them to work 20 hours per week and/or to participate in a state or federally funded work-study program
  • Receive public cash assistance benefits under a Federal Title IV-A program
  • Work at least 20 hours per week
  • Be responsible for the care of a household member under age 6
  • Attend college or other eligible schools as part of one of the following programs:
    • Food Stamp Act
    • Section 236 of Trade Act of 1974
    • Workforce Investment Act
    • Any other program outlined in state or local guidelines

You should be aware that SNAP benefits historically have not been extended to non-U.S. citizens unless certain criteria are met. In general, under the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008, a non-citizen can be found eligible for SNAP benefits if they meet certain requirements:

  • Are a child under age 18
  • Have lived in the United States for at least five years
  • Currently have a green card
  • Are a non-immigrant trafficking victim
  • Are classified as a refugee or asylee
  • Have applied for green card status under the Violence Against Women Act
  • Are classified as Afghan or Iraqi with special immigrant visa
  • Currently receive disability benefits or assistance

In addition to the qualifications outlined above, non-citizens also must meet any appropriate income, resource, and work requirements for their specific state.

You must apply for food stamps benefits within the same state your household resides in. If you move during a certification period, you must cancel benefits in your old home state and reapply for SNAP benefits in your new home state.

U.S. citizens who are homeless are also eligible to receive SNAP benefits. You do not need a permanent address to apply. Even if you are temporarily staying with friends or living in a shelter, you still may be eligible if you meet the specific requirements of your state’s program.

It’s important to note that if anything changes regarding your eligibility or household status, you must report those changes to your SNAP local office immediately. Failure to comply with any of the requirements listed here could result in your benefits being revoked.

How to Apply for Food Stamps

When you apply for food stamps, the most important thing to understand is that you must apply specifically for your state’s program, and you must meet eligibility requirements for that state. Benefits are not transferable if you move, though you typically can use your SNAP benefits on a short-term basis in another state while traveling. If you move your residence to another state, though, you must terminate benefits in your original state and apply for new benefits through your new home state’s program.

States typically offer several different ways for you to apply – some have online applications that can be completed and submitted electronically. You also can apply in person at your local SNAP office or call your local office to apply over the phone. If none of these options can work for you, you can designate an authorized representative to apply and to be interviewed on your behalf. Just make sure you fully understand what your state offers in terms of various ways to apply.

In general, you will need several pieces of documentation to complete your application. These usually include items like identity verification, which could be a driver’s license, a school ID, state ID card, birth certificate, voter registration card, or even medical insurance ID.

You’ll also need verification of your citizenship status in the form of a birth certificate, green card, employment verification card, or naturalization certificate. You can include documentation that verifies your level of resources, such as bank statements, real estate deeds, copies of stocks or bonds, and possibly appraisal documents.

If you can’t provide documented evidence for any of the claims within your application, you should reach out to your local SNAP office – they may be able to help you determine your best plan for moving forward with your application.

Once your application is accepted, you will need to complete an eligibility interview. These are typically carried out over the phone or in person. During this interview, you’ll be asked questions that help the reviewer verify the information presented in your application. You may also be asked to provide additional documentation of various claims within your application. Your SNAP reviewer can determine whether your case merits an expedited review, rather than going through the typical process. Your SNAP interview is also an opportunity for you to ask questions about the program so you can learn about the benefits you can expect to receive, your rights as a SNAP recipient, guidelines, and more.

In most cases, you will be contacted by your local SNAP office within 30 days to inform you if your application has been approved. In some rare emergency cases, you can be approved for expedited benefits within seven days of submitting your application. This kind of approval is generally reserved for households with less than $150 in gross monthly income and less than $100 in available assets, or for households with a combined monthly gross income that is less than the costs of rent/mortgage and utilities. Your application will automatically be screened to see if you apply for this type of approval – you do not have to apply separately.

In some states, if all members of your household currently are receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), Supplemental Security Income (SSI), or other general benefits, your application for SNAP may be immediately approved on the grounds of being “categorically eligible.” The SNAP office may determine that you qualify since you have already met standards for other need-based programs.

If your application is denied or you disagree with a decision, you do have the opportunity to appeal. You can request a hearing with a SNAP official, who is required to review your application in an unbiased manner. You’ll usually need to appeal within 90 days of receiving your decision, though guidelines can vary from state to state. You can usually file an appeal online, over the phone, or in person at the SNAP office. Keep in mind that a fair hearing may not change the outcome of your application, but it will ensure that your claim receives a fair and impartial review.

Receiving Your SNAP Benefits

Once you are approved for benefits, you will begin receiving monthly payments loaded onto an EBT card, which is like a debit card. Please note that an EBT card is the only way currently to receive your monthly benefit. Food stamps are no longer sent through the mail – all benefits are received electronically. Your SNAP benefits acceptance letter will include information for setting up your EBT account. You can keep using your EBT card to purchase food as long as the balance can cover your purchases.

How to Use an EBT Card

You can use your EBT card much like you would a debit card at any participating retail establishment, including grocery stores, gas stations, convenience stores, and some farmers markets. Most retailers will display a sign if they accept EBT payments, but you can always ask to make sure. Major retailers like Walmart, Target, and some CVS and Walgreens locations may also accept EBT payments. 35 states allow SNAP recipients to use their EBT cards to make online grocery purchases. Check with your local SNAP office to find out more.

The philosophy behind SNAP is to ensure that families have access to the nutritious food they need to cook meals at home, so those are the types of foods most supported by the program. In general, you can use your EBT card to purchase any of the following:

  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Fruits and vegetables: fresh, frozen, or canned
  • Cereal, pasta, bread, and rice
  • Non-alcoholic beverages
  • Snack foods and desserts
  • Plants and seeds that can produce food for the family to eat
  • Various spices used for cooking, including flavor extracts
  • Oils and fats
  • Condiments

Be aware, though, that there are some categories of food or household items that are not eligible for EBT purchase. They include the following:

  • Tobacco products
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Medication, vitamins, and supplements
  • Live animals – unless an animal is slaughtered before pickup and/or a fresh fish is removed from the water before pickup. Shellfish also are exempt from this rule.
  • Prepared/hot foods – remember that SNAP is designed to support the purchase of foods that you can take home and cook for your family. Foods that are already prepared or ready for consumption are exempt from purchase through the SNAP program.
  • Non-food items like cleaning supplies, pet food, health and beauty products, or other household supplies

SNAP guidelines allow for the replacement of grocery products if something happens to your food. For example, the power may go out which results in spoiled food. You need to submit a claim within 10 days to receive replacement benefits. If your card is lost or stolen, you should contact your local SNAP office immediately. They will cancel your existing card and issue you a new one, usually within seven days of making your report. 

Other Federal Food Assistance Programs

In addition to SNAP, the U.S. government provides food assistance through several other benefits programs. Please note that this list is not exhaustive – check with your local SNAP office to find out about additional programs that you and your household might be eligible to receive.

  • Free School Meals for Children
  • WIC Nutrition Program
  • Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations
  • D-SNAP
  • Free Food Programs for Seniors

There are dozens of other food assistance programs that are available throughout the United States, and it is possible to receive Food Stamps while also receiving benefits from these other programs. The Special Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) provides supplemental food and nutritional education to pregnant or nursing mothers along with children up to age 5. Like Food Stamps, WIC benefits in many states or parceled out to recipients via a debit card.

For elderly individuals over the age of 60, the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides supplemental foodstuffs to recipients who may be lacking certain elements of nutrition in their diet. The CSFP does not distribute benefits through an EBT card, but rather individual states provide actual foodstuffs through distribution centers and local agencies.

For childcare and adult care providers, the Child and Adult Care Food Program (CACFP) can reimburse care centers that offer food and snacks to children or functionally limited adults. Schools can be reimbursed for providing lunches and even breakfasts to low-income students by the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) and School Breakfast Program (SBP), which are meant to help children secure the nutrition they need at school.

If you are in a situation where your household needs immediate food assistance, please call the Hunger Hotline:

  • 1-866-3-HUNGRY (English)
  • 1-877-8-HAMBRE (Spanish)

Understanding SNAP Benefits

SNAP Benefits, or Food Stamps as they are often called, are issued by the federal government, and administered by states to help citizens and select non-citizens bridge nutritional gaps in their diet. These benefits are issued through an Electronic Benefits Transfer debit card (EBT), which can be used at grocery stores and other places that sell packaged foodstuffs. For more than 75 years, SNAP benefits have helped countless households across the United States get the access they need to healthy foods they can use to prepare meals for their families.

While an EBT card cannot be used to buy alcohol or dine in a restaurant, it can be used to provide individuals and families with much needed food or assist in stretching their food budget. With almost 40 million Americans receiving SNAP benefits, this welfare program effectively helps the people who struggle to put food on their tables. In many states, the application for SNAP benefits can be easily filled out online, making them an attractive option for those in need of nutritional assistance.

These benefits are available to all eligible households, regardless of sex, race, religious affiliation, national origin, or political beliefs. If you believe your household may be eligible, please reach out to your local SNAP office for more program information about receiving food assistance.