The Food Stamps Program

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The Food Stamps Program

You may be eligible to receive food stamps if you are struggling to purchase groceries for your household. This program, now known as SNAP food stamps or simply SNAP, remains the largest food assistance program in the country today, providing millions of Americans access to an assortment of nutritious foods needed to remain healthy. While the program was first introduced in the 1930s, it was not available in every state until the 1970s.

Today, the program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and has heightened its initiative in ensuring that low-income individuals and families not only receive food benefits, but the nutrition education needed to make healthy lifestyle choices. SNAP benefits are meant to reduce the risks, diseases and disorders associated with malnourishment. To learn more about the program and how you can apply for food stamps, read the following sections below.

What is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program?

The SNAP program is a federal nutrition program that provides food benefits to eligible, low-income individuals and families. These families include households with children, seniors and people with disabilities. The program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), under the Food and Nutrition Service department. However, each state determines eligibility requirements and distributes benefits through their Division of Social Services or Children and Family Services.

Recipients can use their benefits to purchase an array of healthy foods at local grocery stores, convenience stores and farmers markets. Each month, beneficiaries receive SNAP benefits directly into their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. This allotment is determined based on a variety of factors, including income and household size. SNAP recipients can only use their benefits to purchase approved foods and cannot purchase non-food items. Approved foods include the following:

  • Breads and cereals
  • Dairy products
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat, poultry and fish
  • Plants and seeds that produce foods

Otherwise, SNAP beneficiaries cannot use their benefits to purchase alcohol, hot foods, vitamins and medicine, pet foods or household supplies. This is to ensure that the program’s benefits are being used to fulfill its nutritional purpose. In addition to SNAP benefits, recipients can learn about good nutrition and how to budget on food stamps through SNAP-ED. It is a subprogram of SNAP that works with partners, providing grants to create programming and campaigns that teach SNAP recipients how to make healthy grocery store choices, create deliciously wholesome meals and ultimately prevent obesity.

Eligibility Requirements for SNAP Food Stamps

Before you apply for SNAP benefits, you must be aware of the program’s eligibility requirements. Unlike other programs that serve particular categories or groups, the SNAP program is available to all underserved, low-income households. This means you do not have to have a disability or children living with you to receive benefits. To receive food stamps, you must apply in the state you reside in, and you must meet gross and net income requirements according to your household size. Gross income is your household’s total income before any deductions are made. On the other hand, net income is a reduced version of your gross income, taking allowable deductions into account.

If you or a member of your household is elderly or disabled, you only have to meet the net income limit for your household size to qualify for SNAP food stamps. These income eligibility limits and rules are set federally and are uniform across all states, with the exception of Hawaii and Alaska whose income limits are slightly higher. While your gross income must not exceed 130 percent of the poverty level, your net income cannot exceed 100 percent of the poverty level. The SNAP food program adjusts its income eligibility standards, deduction and maximum allotment at the beginning of each Federal fiscal year. These changes are dependent on the cost of living adjustment, which is determined each year on the first of October.

When applying for SNAP food stamps, be aware of the allowable deductions that your household can receive. For example, there is a certain deduction from earned income. These deductions are higher for larger households and households in states or territories where the cost of living is much higher, such as Guam and Hawaii. You may also be eligible to receive a dependent care deduction if you are needed for work, education or training. If you are a senior or disabled person with medical expenses, the SNAP program will deduct these costs as well.

You may also receive a deduction on certain shelter costs, such as electricity, rent or mortgage payments and water, if these costs are more than half of your household’s income after other deductions. Depending on your state, you may be eligible to receive a deduction for child support payments. In addition to these deductions, you must meet resource guidelines to apply for food stamps. Your countable resources, such as money in your bank account, cash and certain vehicles, cannot exceed a specific limit set by the program. However, this countable resource limit is slightly higher if at least one member of your household is elderly or disabled.

If you currently receive government assistance from programs like the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) or Supplement Security Income (SSI), your household may be categorically eligible for the SNAP program. These means-tested programs generally have the same eligibility requirements. Like these programs, you may only receive food assistance if you are a U.S. citizen or certain non-citizen. Additionally, SNAP requires that you fulfill work requirements, which include registering for work and participating in employment and training programs, if you are assigned to do so by your state. To find out whether you meet eligibility requirements, the Food and Nutrition Service has an online pre-screening eligibility tool which can be used to determine your eligibility.

How to Apply for Food Stamps

At this point, you may be wondering how to apply for food stamps. To receive food benefits, you must apply for SNAP through your state agency. While most states offer a few different application methods, some will require that you contact your local food stamp office directly. Some states allow you to apply for SNAP benefits online. You may visit your local SNAP office in person or call your state’s toll-free information hotline.

If you cannot visit your local SNAP office or cannot apply for food stamps online, you can have another person apply on your behalf as an authorized representative. Once you submit your food stamps application, you will receive a denial or approval letter of your eligibility within 30 days. During this processing time, you will be expected to complete an eligibility interview and verify important information by providing the appropriate documentation. If you have an authorized representative applying on your behalf, he or she will complete the interview as well. The interview can be completed in-person or over the phone. Upon approval, you will receive SNAP benefits based on the date your application was submitted.

Receiving SNAP Benefits

After applying for the SNAP program, you may be wondering how and for how long you will receive your benefits. SNAP benefits are automatically distributed each month on a plastic EBT card that is similar to a debit card. You will receive this card in the mail after receiving your SNAP letter of approval. Each state and territory has its own monthly issuance schedule for distributing benefits to SNAP recipients. The designated day you will receive benefits each month will be dependent on your case number, Social Security number or the first letter of your last name. If you are wondering how long you will receive food stamps, note that you will receive a notice that verifies your certification period. As your certification period comes to an end, you will receive a notice that will ask you to recertify in order to continue receiving benefits.

How much can you receive in benefits?

The maximum amount of SNAP food benefits your household will be eligible to receive depends on your monthly income and household size. This is called an allotment and it is calculated by multiplying your household’s net monthly income by 30 percent. This represents the amount you are expected to spend on food. This result is then subtracted from the maximum monthly allotment set by the USDA for your household size. Maximum allotments are generally the same across the nation, excluding Alaska, Guam, Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

How to Check Your EBT Balance

In order to remain on budget, you will need to check your EBT balance frequently to ensure that you are not overspending. There are a variety of ways you can check your balance. Each state agency has its own SNAP helpline that you can call 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Typically, you can use this number to change your EBT card pin or report your card as lost or stolen and order a replacement. Additionally, most states allow you to check your balance online on your state agency’s website or a partnering website.

You will most likely need to create a username or password. The benefit of using an online portal is that it generally contains other pertinent information regarding your SNAP benefits. You may also check your balance by looking at your last receipt. Every purchase made with EBT will print your current balance on your receipt. Make sure to keep this receipt in a safe space or to write down your balance somewhere else.

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