Food stamps help approximately 42 million people in the U.S., or 13 percent of the population. The program, which is now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), helps needy families and households put food on the table. Overall, the main goal of SNAP is to give people in need the chance to improve their current living situations.
If you are approved for SNAP benefits, you must learn which food items you are allowed to buy and where you are allowed to buy them. Generally, you may only use your benefits at approved grocery stores and farmers markets. In addition, you may use your benefits outside of your state. You will receive your benefits each month on an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card, which looks and works like a debit card. To learn your rights and responsibilities as a beneficiary of the program, continue reading below.
Which food items can you buy using food stamps?
The SNAP program has specific guidelines on which food items you may purchase with an EBT card. These rules are established by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and administered by state programs.
If you are in an authorized grocery store or farmers market, you may use your benefits to buy the following items, among others:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Red meat, poultry and fish
- Dairy products
- Grains, such as rice, oats or quinoa
- Bread and breakfast cereals
- Certain kinds of beverages
Generally, the USDA recommends that you use your benefits for staple food items, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy products, breads and grains. However, you may also use your SNAP food stamps to buy vegetarian or vegan meat substitutes, such as tofu, bean burgers, seitan and more. These would still be considered staple foods.
In addition to buying staple foods with your EBT card, you may buy “accessory foods.” These include snacks such as:
- Granola bars.
- And more.
Even though these items are pre-packaged, they may be purchased with your benefits because they are not meant to be eaten in the store.
Other items that fall under the accessory foods category in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program include baking ingredients and condiments, such as:
- Flour, baking powder and baking soda.
- Sugar, honey and maple syrup.
- Vanilla extract.
- Ketchup, mustard and relish.
- Oil and vinegar.
Keep in mind that these lists are not comprehensive. If you are confused about what types of foods you may buy with your benefits, check to see if each item has a nutrition label. Some items that may seem like foods may actually have a supplement label, which means that you may not buy them with an EBT card.
Products You Cannot Buy Using Food Stamps
Generally, your food stamp benefits may not be used in restaurants and businesses that make more than 50 percent of their total gross sales from heated and prepared foods. However, some states may allow you to purchase food from restaurants with your EBT card under certain circumstances.
For instance, many counties in California offer a CalFresh restaurant meals program. SNAP beneficiaries who are 60 years of age or older may buy prepared meals at a lower cost from authorized restaurants. Recipients who are disabled or homeless may participate in the program as well.
If you are using your SNAP assistance in a grocery store, you may not buy:
- Cigarettes, tobacco or vaping products.
- Vitamins, medicines or supplements.
- Prepared or hot foods meant to be eaten in a store.
- Pet foods.
- Cleaning products, toiletries, cosmetics and paper products.
Some of these rules, especially the prepared and hot foods rule, may seem confusing. This is because you are allowed to use your benefits for pre-packaged snacks and bakery items, such as cookies, pies or cakes. You may even purchase certain deli items from behind a counter, such as cold cuts. However, they must be cold, and may not be consumed in the store.
Your SNAP food benefits may also be used to purchase live animals in specific circumstances. You may use an EBT card to buy shellfish, for example, as long as they are removed from the water and you intend to prepare and consume them at home. You may also buy a live farm animal or live fish, as long as it is slaughtered by the time you pick it up from the store.
The USDA has an “ask the expert” system if you have questions about specific items. To ask a question, email the organization or mail your question to the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) in the USDA. This system might help you avoid accidentally buying unauthorized items, so you do not have to risk an EBT card rejection at check out.
How are food stamps benefits amounts calculated?
The amount of benefits you will receive from the food stamps program depends on a variety of factors, including:
- Your household income.
- The number of people in your household.
- Your age and the age of other household members.
- Whether any household members are disabled, pregnant or take care of dependents.
Depending on these factors, you may be approved for the maximum monthly allotment or less. For a household of one, the maximum monthly allotment is $192. For a household of two, the maximum allotment is $352. This number increases as the household size increases.
Note: These numbers do not apply to Alaska, Hawaii and certain other states.
You may use a food stamp calculator to predict how much you may receive in benefits. These calculators are often provided by third-party websites that may or may not be affiliated with state SNAP programs. Keep in mind that you may also predict your benefit allotment yourself by following the USDA calculation guidelines.
It is important that you do not confuse a food stamp calculator with a SNAP calculator or a pre-screening tool, which predicts your qualifications instead.
When do you start receiving SNAP benefits after applying?
In general, you may receive a notice of whether you qualify for food stamps within 30 days of applying. You may receive a notice of qualifications more quickly if you are homeless or have an extremely low income.
Once you are approved, your public assistance office will mail you your EBT card or require you to pick it up in person. You may use your EBT card in grocery stores and farmers markets as soon as it is activated and your benefits have been loaded into your account.