Food Stamps, now called The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provides low income households with much needed cash assistance to buy groceries. The SNAP program is available in every state and administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) through each state’s Department of Health and Human Services or Social Services. 

10 FAQs About Food Stamps and SNAP

  1. What are food stamps?
  2. How do I apply for food stamp benefits?
  3. What is SNAP?
  4. Who can receive SNAP benefits?
  5. How many people use SNAP in the United States?
  6. What can I buy with food stamps?
  7. Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to receive SNAP benefits?
  8. What is ABAWD?
  9. Is SNAP part of SSI? 
  10. What other food assistance programs are available in the United States?

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.

10 FAQs About Food Stamps and SNAP

What are Food Stamps?

Food Stamps is the previous name for what is today SNAP Benefits. These benefits are issued to individuals with limited income or limited financial means, as determined by each state, and based on varying factors.

How do I apply for food stamp benefits?

You can apply for food stamps on your state’s Department of Health and Human Services website (DHS in most states) or the Social Services website. In most cases, you can also go into your local Social Security office or call to initiate an application over the phone.

What is SNAP?

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program is the current name of what was once the Food Stamp Program. This program provides cash assistance to individuals and families who have been approved for the program by the appropriate state agency in their state, whether that’s the DHS or Social Services. 

Benefit recipients receive a monthly payment that is accessible from their EBT card, which they can use at grocery stores and other locations selling packaged or fresh food (such as bakery items and cold, take-home prepared foods). SNAP benefits are one of the many welfare programs offered by the federal government to help individuals and families of limited financial means bridge a nutritional gap and avoid going hungry or malnourished.

Who can receive SNAP benefits?

If you already receive Supplemental Security Income, in many states, you will automatically qualify for SNAP benefits. However, if you are not an SSI recipient, you can apply for SNAP benefits. Your application will take into consideration the number of dependents in your household, your cash assets (e.g. a savings account), your deemed income, and deductions such as housing, child care costs, medical expenses, and utilities. In most cases, if your income is within 130% of the Federal Poverty Level for a household of your size, you will qualify for SNAP benefits. As of 2020, a family of four could have a household income of up to $34,060 and still receive SNAP benefits. 

How many people use SNAP in the United States?

In 2019, 38 million Americans were receiving SNAP benefits, which is roughly 12% of the 328 million accounted for citizens and residents of the United States. The percentages will change 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.

Some food stamp recipients may also be getting other food assistance benefits from USDA programs like WIC, or their children may benefit from a food assistance program that provides school meals. There are almost 40 million SNAP participants. 38 million Americans live below the poverty line, and a SNAP household can have a gross income of 130% above the poverty line. It is reasonable to assume that many other households have SNAP eligibility—although eligible households could be receiving assistance through a program like SSI instead.

What can I buy with food stamps?

SNAP benefits can be used to buy food in a grocery store, drug store, or convenience store. Interestingly, it can also be used to buy plants and seeds to grow food. You cannot use an EBT card or SNAP benefits to buy alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, ready to eat hot foods (such as what is offered in a restaurant), pet food, or consumer staples such as cosmetics or household items. 

A SNAP recipient is supposed to use their SNAP benefits to buy nutritious food since programs like SNAP were created to eliminate food insecurity. However, SNAP participants are not required to bring their grocery store receipts to the local Department of Health and Human Services or submit their expenditures to a social worker to prove they are buying healthy food. 

SNAP recipients can use their EBT card to buy whatever they’d like in the grocery store, but they should budget knowing that their SNAP benefits are issued once a month. However, it should be noted that other programs, like WIC, do involve period check-ins with a nurse or nutritionist, and recipients must use their benefits to buy very specific food items.

Do I have to be a U.S. citizen to receive SNAP benefits?

If you are not a U.S. citizen, you must be a lawfully present non-citizen, such as a qualified alien child under 18, and admitted refugee, a victim of human trafficking, lawful permanent residents who have been working for at least 40 quarters. 

Certain ethnic groups from war-torn regions like Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, and Laos can qualify as non-citizen residents as well. Each one of the USDA programs like SNAP is an equal opportunity provider that issues benefits regardless of race, religion, or political beliefs. Instead, SNAP eligibility depends on factors like gross monthly income and household size. A SNAP application will only be approved for benefits when completed by a U.S. citizen or the non-citizen resident types listed above. If you’d like to double-check your own household’s eligibility, it’s a good idea to check the eligibility requirements listed on the websites of the USDA or your state’s DHS or Social Services.

What is ABAWD?

ABAWD stands for Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents. These individuals range in age from 18 to 49, are not pregnant, and don’t live or eat with children. To receive SNAP benefits for more than 3 months during a 3-year period, ABAWDs must work 80 hours a month (even as a volunteer), or participate in a work program at least 80 hours a month. You can also do both and combine hours for a total of 80 hours monthly. 

You will be excused from these requirements if you become pregnant, obtain a dependent (for example, if a child under 18 moves into your home), or become unable to work due to physical or mental limitations.

Is SNAP part of SSI?

SNAP benefits are not part of SSI (Supplemental Security Income). SSI is generally paid out to individuals with very limited economic means, while, as mentioned, SNAP benefits can be retained by families with an income even 130% above the federal poverty line. Some states do combine the applications for SNAP and SSI, and sometimes this is referred to as SSI Food Stamps. In these states, if you apply for one, you apply for the other. 

This is not true in every state, so you should consult your state's DHS or Social Services. In some states, if an SSI applicant qualifies for SNAP, they will not have SNAP benefits issued, but rather will receive additional SSI benefits in one streamlined monthly benefit payment.

What other food assistance programs are available in the United States?

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.

SNAP and the Food Stamps Program

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. 

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 a decent number of Americans (almost 40 million) receiving SNAP benefits, it is clear that this welfare program effectively helps the people of the United States, some of whom might otherwise 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.