In 2014, more than 46 million people got all or part of their monthly grocery bills paid by the government. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, helps low-income people buy the food they need to stay healthy. The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees the program, reports that SNAP benefits kept 5 million Americans – including 2.2 million children – out of poverty in 2012.
The SNAP program, formerly known as food stamps, has received a lot of criticism from both sides of the political spectrum. Politicians on the right argue that the program is inefficient and widely abused; those on the left claim that benefits are too low to keep up with rising food prices. Nonetheless, for many Americans, the extra money SNAP provides means the difference between eating regularly and going hungry.
What SNAP Does
The purpose of SNAP is simple: to help provide food for people who can’t afford it. However, figuring out the best way to do that isn’t so simple. The food stamp program has been through many changes over the years, and present-day SNAP has fairly elaborate rules to determine who is eligible for benefits and how those benefits are calculated.
History of SNAP
The program now known as SNAP has its roots in the Great Depression. In 1939, American farmers had a large surplus of goods they couldn’t sell, while at the same time, widespread unemployment was leaving many city dwellers with too little money to buy food. The Federal Government set up the first food stamp program as a way to distribute these excess goods. Over a four-year period, about 20 million people across the country took part in the program, buying stamps and trading them in for food at reduced cost.
By 1943, the twin problems of unemployment and food surpluses were no longer common, and the program shut down. However, in 1961, the government revived the idea in a new pilot program, this time with a focus on food aid rather than using up farm surplus. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Food Stamp Act, making the program permanent. The Federal Government took on the cost of funding the benefits, while the states were responsible for managing the program.
Over the decades, the food stamp program went through many changes. Reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s established strict new eligibility standards for the program and eliminated the need for people to purchase the stamps. Between 1984 and 2004, the government gradually streamlined the program by replacing paper stamps with an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card, which is easier to use and makes it possible to track transactions and reduce fraud. This change made the name “food stamps” inappropriate, and in 2008, the name of the program was officially changed to SNAP.
Who Uses SNAP
Some people think of SNAP as a program for people who are unemployed or single mothers on welfare. However, SNAP benefits are actually available to all Americans with low income and limited resources.
A USDA report from 2014 shows that SNAP recipients vary in numerous ways:
- Employment. Some SNAP recipients are unemployed, but others work low-wage jobs. About 31% of all SNAP households have some sort of earnings from work, and 42% of all people who receive SNAP benefits live in a household that has earnings. The majority of SNAP households don’t receive any other form of government aid, such as Temporary Aid to Needy Families (TANF) or Social Security.
- Income. While all SNAP recipients are low-income, some are much lower-income than others. About 18% of SNAP households have enough income to put them above the poverty line, while 42% have earnings that put them only halfway to the poverty line, or even less. About 20% of SNAP households have no income at all. The average SNAP household earns just below 60% of the poverty line, and nearly 27% of all its monthly funds come from SNAP itself.
- Age. Many of the people who benefit from SNAP are children. According to the report, about 45% of all recipients are under 18 years old. Another 9% are over the age of 60.
- Household Size. The average size of a SNAP household is 2.1 people, but there’s a lot of variation among households. Households with children tend to be larger, around 3.2 people, while households with elderly members have only 1.3 people on average. Roughly half of all SNAP households have only a single person.
How Benefits are Calculated
The USDA calculates how much a household should get in SNAP benefits based on its Thrifty Food Plan – an estimate of the minimum amount a family can spend and still enjoy a healthy diet. According to the USDA’s estimates for June 2015, feeding a family of four on the Thrifty Food Plan would cost about $649. This is the maximum amount it’s possible to get per month from SNAP.
However, most households don’t get this maximum benefit. That’s because, as the word “supplemental” in the name implies, SNAP benefits aren’t usually meant to replace your entire food budget. Instead, they’re supposed to make up for the portion of the food budget that you can’t pay yourself. Thus, the percentage of the maximum benefit you get depends on your household income.
The USDA estimates that a family on SNAP should spend no more than 30% of its income on food. Thus, to figure out how much your benefit should be, it starts by taking your household income and multiplying it by 30%. If the result isn’t enough to cover the cost of your family’s expenses on the Thrifty Food Plan, SNAP gives you enough in benefits to make up the difference.
A household with no income at all is naturally entitled to the maximum benefit. According to the 2014 USDA report, 40% of all SNAP households received the maximum benefit for their family size in 2012. However, the average SNAP household in that year got only $274 per month – a little more than 40% of the maximum.
Signing Up for SNAP
SNAP is a collaboration between the Federal Government and individual states. It’s funded by the USDA, but states are in charge of distributing benefits, and each state has its own rules about how to get them. So although you can find general information about the program through the USDA website, you can only get specific facts (such as who is eligible and how to apply) by visiting the site for your state.
Who Is Eligible for SNAP
The rules about who qualifies for SNAP are complex, and they vary somewhat from state to state. However, in general, anyone applying for SNAP has to meet several different requirements:
- Citizenship. All U.S. citizens are eligible for SNAP. Some legal immigrants are also eligible, but they have to meet certain additional requirements that are outlined on the SNAP website. Also, everyone in a household applying for SNAP must either have or apply for a Social Security number.
- Employment. In general, able-bodied adults between the ages of 16 and 60 can only apply for SNAP if they are employed already or show that they are willing to work. To do this, they must register for employment, accept any offers of suitable work, and take part in a job training program. However, there are some exceptions to this rule, such as single parents who are also full-time students.
- Resources. To qualify for SNAP, a household can have no more than $2,250 in the bank or in other “countable resources.” Resources that don’t count toward this limit include the value of your home, if you own one, and money in most types of retirement plans. In some states, the value of your car doesn’t count either. Also, the resources of people who are receiving TANF or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), a program for the elderly and disabled, do not count toward the limit.
- Income. Most households applying for SNAP have to meet tests for both gross income and net income. Your gross income is all the money earned by everyone in your household, including income from Social Security; your net income is your gross income minus an allowance for certain necessary expenses, such as childcare, medical care, and any housing costs that exceed half your gross income. Both income limits depend on how many people are in your household. If you live by yourself, for instance, you can have up to $1,265 a month in gross income and $965 a month in net income – unless you live in Alaska or Hawaii, where the limits are higher. However, if all the members of your household are on public assistance or SSI, you can skip the income tests.
If you’re not sure whether you’re eligible for SNAP, you can check by using the SNAP Pre-Screening Eligibility Tool on the website of the Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). This interactive tool asks you a series of questions about where you live, who is in your household, and so on, and tells you whether you appear to meet the requirements for your state. However, you can’t use this site to actually apply for benefits.
The Enrollment Process
If the SNAP Pre-Screening Eligibility Tool tells you that you qualify for benefits, you can contact your local SNAP office to sign up. You can find a link to your state program via the USDA. The site also has a list of SNAP hotline numbers for each state.
There are five ways to get an application form for SNAP:
- Pick it up in person at your local SNAP office.
- Call the SNAP office and ask to have a form mailed to you.
- Call the SNAP office and ask about other locations where you can pick up forms, such as a public library.
- Print the form from your state’s SNAP website.
- Apply online. Not all states offer an online application, but if your state does, you should be able to find it on your state’s SNAP website or on the USDA site.
Each state’s SNAP application form is different. However, you can expect to be asked for basic information such as your name, address, phone number, and Social Security number. Answer all questions completely and honestly – giving false information on the form could lead to fines or jail time. Hand in the completed application to the SNAP office, either in person, by mail, or by fax.
The next step in the process is to go to the SNAP office for an interview. A SNAP worker sits down with you, goes over your application, reviews the program rules, and helps you complete the application, if necessary.
You should also be prepared to provide proof of your citizenship status, work status, and financial information. The SNAP worker will tell you which papers to bring. Some possibilities include:
- Your driver’s license or state identification card
- Your birth certificate
- Pay stubs from your job and the jobs of others living in your household
- Letters documenting any cash payments you receive regularly, such as Social Security, SSI, Veterans Affairs benefits, unemployment payments, child support, alimony, or retirement benefits
- Bills or records of payment for your apartment rental or mortgage, utilities like gas and electricity, daycare or child support, and medical bills
If the interview is a success, the SNAP worker signs you up for the program, and you receive an EBT card in the mail with your SNAP benefits for the month. If you are turned down, you can call or visit the SNAP office to ask why. If you think there has been a mistake, you can ask for a “fair hearing” with a state employee at the SNAP office. There is no charge for this service.
SNAP Assistance Scams
If you use the Internet to help you apply for SNAP benefits, watch out for SNAP assistance scams. These online ads offer help with filling out a SNAP application, but if you click on them, they take you to a site that asks you for personal information, including credit card information. If you provide it, the scammers use this information to make purchases on your credit card or gain access to your bank accounts.
Genuine information about the SNAP program and how to apply comes either from the USDA site or from your state’s SNAP website. Neither of these sites ever asks you for your credit card information or anything else that isn’t on your state SNAP application. If you see an ad on the Internet for help with a SNAP application, don’t click on it – and if you click on one by mistake, don’t give away your credit card numbers.
If you have already fallen victim to this or a similar online scam, contact your credit card company immediately. You can also file a report with your local police department and with the Federal Trade Commission.
How to Use SNAP
Once you receive your EBT card, the real challenge starts: figuring out how to make the best use of your benefits. Using the card itself is pretty simple – much simpler than the old paper stamps. However, you should expect a bit of a learning curve as you figure out where you can use it, what you can use it for, and most of all, how to make healthy meals on the amount of money SNAP provides.
Using Your EBT Card
Each month, your SNAP benefits for the month are transferred automatically onto your EBT card. This card works just like a debit card: You swipe the magnetic strip through the store’s card reader and type in your personal identification number (PIN), and the money comes directly out of your account. Your PIN protects your account so that no one else can steal your EBT card and use your benefits. You should keep this PIN a secret, just as you would with the PIN for your debit or ATM card.
You can use your EBT card at most food stores, as long as they have a card reader. If you’re not sure where you can use your card, you can search the USDA site to find retailers in your area that accept it. In many areas, you can use your card at farmers’ markets as well. Most restaurants cannot accept SNAP benefits, although in some areas, restaurants are allowed to take them from people who are elderly, homeless, or disabled.
After you buy groceries with your EBT card, there should be a line on your receipt showing how much of your monthly SNAP benefit you spent and how much you have left. Keeping these receipts helps you keep track of how much you have left in your SNAP account to get through the rest of the month.
Which Foods Are Allowed
You can use your SNAP benefits to purchase any type of groceries for your household. This includes not only healthy foods, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, but also junk food, such as soda pop and potato chips, and luxury foods, like steak or seafood. As long as it’s considered a food item, it’s allowed.
You can also use SNAP benefits to buy seeds or plants for your home vegetable garden. Doing this can stretch your benefits much further, since spending $3 on a single tomato plant in the spring can give you many pounds of tomatoes in the fall, which could cost $3 a pound if you bought them at the store. However, it also means a delay of several months between spending your SNAP benefits and actually getting to eat the food. If you only have just enough money to feed your family in April, you can’t afford to spend it on a plant that won’t feed your family until September, even if it would save you money in the long term.
Not everything that’s sold at a grocery store counts as groceries for purposes of SNAP. Specifically, you can’t use your SNAP benefits to buy:
- Alcohol. Alcoholic beverages, including beer, wine, and liquor, aren’t considered food under the SNAP program. You can still buy alcohol with your own money – you just can’t spend your SNAP benefits on it.
- Non-food Items. You can’t spend SNAP benefits on anything that isn’t food. This includes cigarettes, other tobacco products, soap, toothpaste, paper products, household supplies, medicines, and pet food.
- Prepared Foods. You can’t buy any hot foods, such as a rotisserie chicken, with SNAP benefits. You also can’t use SNAP for any food that you eat in the store, such a prepared meal at a store that has a cafeteria section.
- Supplements. You can’t use SNAP to buy vitamins or other supplements. Energy drinks are okay as long as they have a nutrition facts label, but if they have a supplement facts label instead, they are not allowed.
- Live Animals. SNAP can’t be used to buy live animals, such as a chicken. However, live fish, including lobsters and other shellfish, are allowed.
Some items sold in stores, such as gift baskets, contain a mixture of food and non-food items. These can be bought with SNAP benefits only if food items account for at least 50% of the purchase price. The same rule applies to birthday cakes that have non-edible decorations.
Eating Healthy on SNAP
Preparing healthy meals on a SNAP budget can be a challenge. Healthy foods, such as fresh produce and whole-grain bread, are often more expensive than less-healthy processed foods, like potato chips and white bread. However, since SNAP benefits are based on the USDA Thrifty Food Plan, it’s definitely possible to eat a healthy diet on SNAP with a little planning.
Here are some general tips for eating healthy on the income SNAP provides:
- Cook at Home. Cooking your own meals is much cheaper than eating out, even off the fast food dollar menu. SNAP provides enough money for a month’s worth of home-cooked meals, but not enough for restaurant meals – and most restaurants don’t take SNAP anyway.
- Cook from Scratch. Convenience foods, such as frozen dinners, are much more expensive than a similar meal cooked from scratch. Likewise, foods that are partly prepared for you, such as boneless chicken breasts and bagged salads, are more expensive than less processed foods, such as whole chickens and head lettuce. In general, the less processed the ingredients you use for cooking, the less you spend on each meal.
- Cut Down on Meat. Meat is one of the most expensive foods to buy at the store. Plan meals that are built around grain products, such as rice or pasta, with small amounts of meat to add flavor and protein. Examples include spaghetti with meat sauce and stir-fried veggies with pork, served over rice. You can also prepare meatless meals that include eggs, cheese, or beans as a protein source.
- Plan Your Meals. Before you do your grocery shopping, plan out what you want to cook and eat. Check your fridge to see what you have left over from last week, and plan meals that will use these leftovers so they don’t go to waste. You can also plan meals to create leftovers on purpose, such as a beef pot roast that will leave you with extra meat for stew or sandwiches later in the week, or a large batch of chili or casserole that you can freeze portions of for later use.
- Choose Cheaper Ingredients. You can save money on fruit and vegetables by choosing the kinds that are in season or by choosing large bags of frozen veggies, which are just as nutritious as fresh. To save on grain products, choose regular oatmeal and rice instead of quick-cooking varieties, and see if your store offers special deals on day-old bread. Get your protein from less expensive sources such as dry or canned beans, canned fish, and chicken legs.
The USDA offers additional tips for eating healthy on a budget through its SNAP-Ed Connection, an online resource to help SNAP users get the most out of their benefits. You can find all kinds of resources here on nutrition, shopping, and cooking. Another good resource from the USDA is Recipes and Tips for Healthy Meals, a booklet that offers a complete guide to eating on the Thrifty Meal Plan. It includes advice about shopping, cooking, and food safety, as well as specific menus and recipes you can prepare on a thrifty budget.
Another useful cookbook for people on a SNAP budget is “Good and Cheap” by Leanne Brown. After working with people living on SNAP and observing what they ate, Brown set out to design healthy meals that could be made on just $4 a day, the average benefit for SNAP recipients at the time. You can buy “Good and Cheap” for about $10 at most online bookstores, or download it as a free PDF from Brown’s website.
Many people who are legally entitled to SNAP benefits feel uncomfortable about using them. They’re ashamed that they don’t earn enough to feed their families, or they worry that others will see them as lazy and imprudent. But there’s nothing shameful about accepting a little help when you need it – and the rules for SNAP are strict enough to ensure that the people who use it really need it.
If it helps, you can think of SNAP and other government benefits as a sort of insurance program. All taxpayers put money into the system, just like paying a premium for health insurance, and those who are in need take money out, just as sick people take money from their health insurer to pay medical bills. The same person who takes money out of the system this year could be paying money in next year, and vice versa.
You wouldn’t feel ashamed about taking money from your auto insurer to pay for repairs after an accident. Taking SNAP, or another type of government benefit, is just the same thing.
Have you ever had to rely on SNAP benefits? If so, what was the experience like for you?