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Learn About SNAP Benefits in California

The food stamps program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) in order to reduce stigma and emphasize the focus on providing nutritious foods to families in need. In place of food stamps or vouchers, participants now use electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards to make qualified purchases. Monetary benefits are loaded onto the card every month, making it easier for beneficiaries to use SNAP benefits in California.

CalFresh is the name of the SNAP program in California, and it is run by the state Department of Social Services (CDSS). Generally, you are able to use your benefits at approved grocery stores and farmers’ markets. However, it is important to note that your benefits can only be used to purchase pre-approved food items. Continue reading below to learn more about your benefits and how to abide by CalFresh regulations.

Which food items can you buy using food stamps in California?

Benefits from the California SNAP program are not meant to replace your food budget, but expand it. As a result, the CDSS highly recommends that you use your benefits to purchase nutritious foods that will keep your family and/or household healthy. Consequently, your EBT card, which was previously in the form of SNAP food stamps, may be used to purchase items such as:

  • Fruits and vegetables, fresh or frozen
  • Fish, poultry, red meat and meat substitutes such as tofu
  • Beans, nuts and seeds
  • Rice and other grains, bread, tortillas and cereal
  • Dairy products
  • Snack foods

While you are encouraged to purchase healthy foods, you are also allowed to buy packaged snack foods such as chips, pretzels and/or cookies. Thus, you do not have to stick to items that require cooking, like rice or raw meat. Moreover, you can purchase frozen meals and frozen desserts, if you wish to do so.

According to guidelines from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, snacks and desserts are considered accessory foods. According to the CDSS recommendation, these items should not make up the majority of your diet. Instead, a balanced diet should consist of staple foods, including:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat, poultry, fish or meat substitutes
  • Dairy products
  • Breads, grains and cereals

Furthermore, you may use your CalFresh benefits to purchase condiments and other foods that are meant to complement a meal. For example, you may buy mayonnaise, mustard, ketchup, hot sauce, vinegar, honey, maple syrup and other condiments. You are also allowed to buy baking ingredients, including:

  • Spices that are powdered, dried or extracted
  • Baking soda and baking powder
  • Vanilla extract
  • Sugar
  • Vegetable oils, shortening and lard

If you are wondering whether an item qualifies as a SNAP item, make sure that it has a nutrition facts label instead of a dietary supplement label. Under federal guidelines, a supplement does not have the same label requirements. For example, you may use an EBT card to purchase gummy snacks, but not gummy vitamins. Learn more about SNAP and approved food items when you download our free guide.

Products You Cannot Buy Using Food Stamps in California

It is important for you to only use your California food stamp benefits to purchase approved items. Generally, EBT cards will reject attempted purchases of prohibited items. If you manage to buy prohibited items with your benefits, you risk losing your eligibility for the program. For example, you are not allowed to buy the following items with your benefits:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Tobacco and cigarette products
  • Non-food items, such as pet food, toiletries, paper products and diapers
  • Supplement foods, such as vitamins or medicine
  • Hot foods and foods meant to be eaten in a store
  • Live animals

The California SNAP assistance program has certain exceptions to the rule regarding hot foods. For instance, if you are 60 years of age or older, have a disability or find yourself homeless, you may participate in the CalFresh restaurant meals program. This program allows you to buy prepared meals at a lower cost with your EBT card.

To take advantage of these SNAP food benefits, you must visit approved restaurants. However, keep in mind that most restaurants are not authorized to participate in CalFresh because more than 50 percent of their gross sales are made by selling heated and prepared foods. Thus, it is important to review a list of authorized restaurants before visiting one. It is also important to make sure that your county participates in the restaurant meals program.

Furthermore, it is worth noting that some pre-made foods are acceptable. For example, you are allowed to purchase bakery items such as bread, muffins and cake from participating grocery stores and farmers’ markets. In general, you may not purchase foods from behind a counter that are ready to go.

The CalFresh EBT regulations also have exceptions to the rule regarding live animals. Purchasing shellfish from a seafood counter is acceptable, because they are meant to be prepared and consumed at home. You may also purchase a live farm animal in advance, as long as it is slaughtered by the time you pick it up.

How are food stamps benefits amounts calculated in California?

A food stamps calculator may be useful when determining your monthly benefit allotment before filing an application. Generally, these calculators are provided by third-party sources that may or may not be associated with the CDSS. To use one, you must submit personal information about yourself and your household’s income in order to receive a benefit estimate.

A food stamp calculator is different from a SNAP calculator, which may predict your eligibility for the SNAP. The following factors will determine how much you may receive in benefits:

  • The total gross income of your household. This includes income from self-employment.
  • Unearned income, such as investments or savings. Some forms of unearned income will not be counted.
  • Your eligibility for Social Security Disability (SSDI) benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program. Note that your eligibility for other government assistance programs will not affect your SNAP eligibility, but it may alter the amount you receive in SNAP benefits.
  • Your monthly rent or mortgage and utilities.
  • Your medical expenses, particularly if you are 60 years of age or older and/or have a disability.

When do you start receiving SNAP benefits after applying in California?

If you are eligible for the food stamps program in California, you may begin receiving benefits within 30 days. Note that the 30 days begins on the date your public assistance office receives your application form, not the date you submitted it.

You may get CalFresh benefits more quickly if you make less than $150 each month and do not have many assets. If you believe that you qualify for expedited approval, ask your public assistance office about it before you apply. For more information on SNAP benefits, download our free guide.