Originally, the Pennsylvania food stamps program provided monetary assistance to low-income households in the form of vouchers, which could be exchanged at a cash register for approved food items. Nowadays, the program has been renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and families receive their benefits in the form of an electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card. In Pennsylvania, these are known as access cards, and they look and work just like standard debit cards.
Now that PA SNAP benefits are on access cards, the process of using monetary assistance has been greatly simplified. Recipients may purchase nutritious items that they may not have been able to afford. Overall, these access cards can be used at authorized grocery stores, farmers’ markets and certain other establishments. However, there are rules concerning the items that may be purchased with benefits, as well as the products that are prohibited. Discover more about acceptable purchases below.
Which food items can you buy using food stamps in Pennsylvania?
Participating in the SNAP program in Pennsylvania is meant to expand your existing grocery budget and give you the means to put food on the table. According to the program guidelines, the primary purpose of these benefits is to improve your diet and keep your family healthy.
Your EBT card, which was originally in the form of SNAP food stamps, may be used to purchase the following types of food:
- Fruits and vegetables
- Meat, poultry and fish
- Dairy products
- Breads, grains and cereals
- Certain snack foods
- Beverages, excluding alcohol
- Nuts, seeds and beans
If you are vegetarian or vegan, you may also purchase meat substitutes, such as tofu or vegetable burgers.
A common misconception regarding the SNAP program is that you have to purchase unprepared foods that need to be heated or prepared, such as raw vegetables or uncooked rice. However, you are also allowed to buy packaged foods that don’t require much preparation, as long as these items are meant to be eaten at home and not in the store.
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program guidelines recommend that you use your monthly benefit allotment for staple food items. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), staple foods are:
- Fruits and vegetables.
- Meat, poultry, fish and meat substitutes.
- Dairy products.
- Bread, grains and cereals.
On the other hand, you are within your rights to buy accessory foods, which include snack foods, condiments, baking ingredients and cooking ingredients. Overall, this classification of food items include:
- Chips, pretzels, doughnuts, granola bars and other snacks.
- Ketchup, mustard, hot sauce, relish, mayonnaise, honey, maple syrup, peanut butter and other condiments.
- Flour, baking soda, baking powder, vanilla extract, sugar and other baking ingredients.
- Cooking oils, shortening, spices and more.
Products You Cannot Buy Using Food Stamps in Pennsylvania
Your Pennsylvania SNAP assistance may not be used to purchase all items sold in authorized grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Consequently, it is important to know the limits of your EBT card before you go shopping, so that you do not run into problems in the checkout line.
As a general rule, your access card may reject the purchase of certain products. For example, your benefits may not be used to buy the following items:
- Alcoholic beverages, such as beer, wine and liquor
- Tobacco products, cigarettes and vape products
- Vitamins, medicines and supplements
- Live animals
- Prepared foods and hot foods which may be eaten immediately
- Pet foods, cleaning supplies, toiletries, cosmetics and other non-food items
Before using your SNAP food benefits, make sure to check whether the items in your shopping cart have nutrition facts labels. This is typically a good rule of thumb because any item that does not have a nutrition facts label is prohibited under the SNAP program guidelines. Vitamins, for instance, have a supplement label, and are therefore defined as a supplement, not as a food.
It is important to note that certain SNAP guidelines have exceptions. For instance, you are allowed to purchase live shellfish despite the live animals rule, as long as they have been taken out of the water and you intend to prepare and eat them at home. Moreover, you are allowed to buy certain live animals from authorized meat markets and fish markets, as long as they are slaughtered before you pick them up.
The food stamps program guidelines on prepared foods may also be somewhat confusing. This is because you are allowed to purchase cold cuts with your EBT card but cannot purchase heated foods, even though both items may be consumed immediately. Generally, the difference between these two items is that cold cuts are not meant to be eaten inside the store.
As a result, meals that are ready to go or pre-made behind a counter may not be purchased with a PA access card. These would be considered restaurant foods, which are prohibited by SNAP. To learn more about acceptable versus unacceptable food purchases, download our free guide.
How are food stamps benefits amounts calculated in Pennsylvania?
A food stamp calculator may help you estimate your monthly SNAP allotment. These calculators, which are sometimes provided by third-party websites that are not associated with the PA Department of Human Services (DHS), will take the information you provide and estimate how much you may receive in benefits each month.
Note: This is not the same as a SNAP calculator, which is also a pre-screening tool. These calculators determine your overall eligibility for the program rather than your monthly benefit allotment.
The maximum monthly allotment you may receive depends on your household size. For example, a household of one person has a maximum allotment of $281 per month. Keep in mind that most beneficiaries will be approved for an amount that is below the maximum.
When do you start receiving SNAP benefits after applying in Pennsylvania?
The date when you will receive your Pennsylvania SNAP benefits depends on when your county assistance office received your request and started the application process. Generally, you will get a decision within 30 days. If you are approved for the program, you will receive your EBT card in the mail soon after.
If you have less than $100 in cash and bank account funds and will not receive more than $150 in income during the month when you apply, you may qualify for expedited SNAP processing. This means that you may receive benefits in the same week that you apply. Learn more about how to use your EBT card and other important SNAP information when you download our free guide.
Last Updated: February 27, 2023