How can food stamps help?

Before you apply for food stamps, or SNAP benefits, at your local government benefits office, it is important to understand how participating in the program can help you and your family.

Although food stamp benefits can help a great deal of people dealing with food insecurity, they cannot meet all the needs a family might face during a time of economic difficulty. Review the sections below to better understand the ways that food stamps can help keep your family from being hungry during tough times.

Additionally, find out which situations cannot be helped  by program participation and learn about other assistance programs.

What are food stamps?

Food stamp benefits are distributed through a federal nutrition program to low-income adults, children, senior citizens and disabled persons who need help stretching their food budget. Participating in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, is often referred to as receiving food stamps. This is because benefits from the United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) use to be issued in the form of paper coupons. These paper “stamps” were redeemed like currency at the supermarket. Now, SNAP is delivered digitally through an Electronic Benefit Transfer card (EBT), that is loaded with a certain dollar value each month. Recipients scan their EBT card at the cash register to purchase eligible foods with their SNAP benefits.

Applicants for SNAP assistance must meet strict income and other eligibility requirements and follow all program guidelines to remain in the program. Recipients of SNAP food stamps may purchase most types of foods available at grocers. SNAP participants are encouraged to use their benefits for healthier foods, such as meat, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, rice, bread, pasta and cereal. Food stamps can also be used to buy non-alcoholic beverages and snack foods, including chips, cookies and ice cream.

How does participation in SNAP help me and my family?

Food stamps are the nation’s largest program in the government’s domestic hunger safety net for low-income individuals and families. According to data published by the USDA, in 2016 SNAP helped an average of 44.2 million people in 21.8 million U.S. households obtain nutritious food. In addition to improving their food intake, participants gained additional benefits including:

  • Moving out of poverty. When the value of SNAP benefits is counted as income, 10 percent of participant households moved above the federal poverty guidelines in 2016.
  • Free or reduced-price food for kids. Children who live in SNAP households automatically qualify to receive free or low-cost breakfast and lunch on school days through the National School Lunch Program and the School Breakfast Program. Kids at schools or daycare centers that do not offer the national breakfast or lunch programs automatically qualify to receive free milk through the Special Milk Program.
  • Automatic benefit adaptations. When the economy is in a recession, food stamp benefits increase. When the economy improves, SNAP participation declines, shifting the flow of benefits to communities facing rising unemployment. Purchasing foods with SNAP benefits puts dollars back into local economies, strengthening the communities where food stamp recipients live and work.
  • Increased food purchasing power. Although SNAP food stamp recipients are expected to use some of their own disposable income toward food costs, SNAP reduces the amount that must be dedicated to feeding the family. This leaves more disposable income available for rent, transportation or utility costs.

Related Article: Using Your Food Stamps

In addition to taking care of the physical need for nourishment. The FNS offers SNAP-Ed, a nutrition education and obesity prevention program added to help food stamp recipients get the most out of their SNAP assistance benefits. SNAP-Ed teaches participants nutrition basics, encourages them to use their benefits on the healthiest foods possible and promotes exercise as an additional way of obtaining good health.

Items that Food Stamps Cannot Buy

SNAP food stamps provide access to a wide variety of foods, including plants and seeds that produce food for the household. However, there are many products you may use on a regular basis that cannot be purchased with a SNAP EBT card. Households cannot use SNAP food stamps to purchase the following:

  • Vitamins and medicines
  • Foods that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods, such as those from a grocer deli
  • Gift baskets, unless food items exceed 50 percent of the purchase price
  • Live animals and birds, except for live seafood including fish, lobsters and shellfish
  • Diapers
  • Pet foods
  • Beer, wine or liquor
  • Cigarettes or tobacco
  • Soap and shampoo
  • Cleaning supplies and paper products

Additional Forms of Food Assistance

Food stamps provide a wide range of individuals with necessary food supplementation. However, there are other federal food assistance programs and local food resources that can help low-income individuals overcome hunger insecurity. Most of these programs are targeted for specific age groups or for people in certain emergency situations.

Processing a Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program application can take some time. If you need immediate food assistance, search for a local food bank. These providers are often located inside churches or other outreach organizations and can provide a certain amount of free food to help until your food stamp benefits begin. In addition, many offer a weekly low-cost food assistance distribution that helps stretch your food budget.

Immediate food assistance is also available by calling the National Hunger Hotline at (866) 3-HUNGRY (348-6479) or (877) 8-HAMBRE (842-6273) in Spanish. You may call the hotline Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern Standard Time (EST).

If you are pregnant, breastfeeding or have children age five or younger, you may be eligible for food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). Unlike SNAP, WIC provides vouchers for specific healthy foods such as infant formula, baby food, whole grains, milk, eggs, cheese, peanut butter and produce. As with SNAP, applicants must meet income guidelines and other eligibility requirements. However, it is generally easier to qualify for WIC than SNAP benefits.

Low-income seniors age 60 and older may qualify for SNAP as well as the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program which provides coupons to exchange for fresh produce, honey and herbs at community farms, farmers markets and roadside stands. The Commodity Supplemental Food Program also helps seniors by providing a food package to qualifying people in certain states.

What is D-SNAP?

D-SNAP is a temporary SNAP benefits program for families needing emergency food assistance following a natural disaster, such as a tornado or a flood. Because D-SNAP provides benefits for a limited time, you may qualify for it even if you normally make too much money to receive food stamps. D-SNAP usually provides benefits within three days to qualifying applicants. Applicants who already receive food stamp benefits may qualify for D-SNAP if the amount received is higher than the usual SNAP benefit amount.

Related Article: Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (D-SNAP) 

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