For over 40 years, the federal Food Stamp Program, now officially named SNAP - the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - has served as a mainline federal social assistance program designed to help low-income families and individuals buy the food they need for good health. The SNAP (Food Stamp) program now helps put nutritious food on the tables of 28 million people every month.
Are You Eligible for SNAP Food Stamps?
Eligibility for SNAP food stamps depends on the applicant household's resources and income. Household resources include things like bank accounts and vehicles. However, certain resources are NOT counted, such as a home and lot, Supplemental Security Income (SSI), the resources of people who receive Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF, formerly AFDC), and most retirement plans. In general, individuals who work for low wages, are unemployed or work part-time, receive public assistance, are elderly or disabled and have a small income, or are homeless may be eligible for food stamps.
The fastest way to find out if your household is eligible for SNAP food stamps is to use the online SNAP Eligibility Pre-screening tool.
How and Where to Apply for SNAP Food Stamps
While SNAP is a federal government program, it is run by state or local agencies. You can apply for SNAP food stamps at any local SNAP office or Social Security office. If you are unable to go to the local office, you may have another person, called an authorized representative, apply and be interviewed on your behalf. You must designate the authorized representative in writing. In addition, some state SNAP program offices now allow online applications.
Normally the applicant must file an application form, have a face-to-face interview, and provide proof (verification) of certain information, such as income and expenses. The office interview may be waived if the applicant is unable to appoint an authorized representative and no household member is able to go to the office because of age or disability. If the office interview is waived, the local office will interview you by telephone or do a home visit.
What to Bring When You Apply for Food Stamps?
Some things you may need when you apply for SNAP food stamps include:
- If You Are Employed: Last four pay stubs or a letter from employer stating gross and net wages for the past month.
- If You are Unemployed: Proof that your employment was terminated. Also identification and claim cards for unemployment benefits.
- Proof of Household Resources: Bring all savings account passbooks (including parents & children). Bring all checking account books in addition to your last checking account statement and canceled checks. All stocks, bonds, savings certificates, annuity funds and credit union membership, etc. must be reported and verified.
- Proof of Income: Bring a copy of income tax return for past year. If you are self-employed, a profit and loss statement for the current calendar quarter is required.
- College Students: Bring proof of education expenses (tuition) and proof of income (loans, scholarships, contributions, earnings).
- Social Security Number(s): Bring the Social Security number for each member of your household. If a member of your household does not have a Social Security number, your food stamp certifier will assist you in obtaining one.
No More Paper Coupons: About the SNAP Food Stamp EBT Card
The familiar multi-colored food stamp coupons have now been phased out. SNAP food stamp benefits are now delivered on SNAP EBT (Electronic Balance Transfer) cards which work like bank debit cards. In order to complete a transaction, the customer swipes the card in a point-of-sale device (POS) and enters a four digit Personal Identification Number (PIN). The store clerk enters the exact amount of the purchase on the POS device. This amount is deducted from the household's EBT SNAP account. SNAP EBT cards can be used in any authorized store in the United States regardless of the state it was issued, except in Puerto Rico and Guam. Stores stopped accepting paper food stamp coupons on June 17, 2009.
Lost, stolen or damaged SNAP EBT cards can be replaced by contacting the state SNAP office.
What You Can and Cannot Buy
SNAP food stamp benefits can only be used to buy food and for plants and seeds to grow food for your household to eat. SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy:
- Any nonfood item, such as pet foods; soaps, paper products, and household supplies; grooming items, toothpaste, and cosmetics
- Alcoholic beverages and tobacco
- Vitamins and medicines
- Any food that will be eaten in the store
- Hot foods
The SNAP program requires stores to carry a certain number of “staple” foods- meat, dairy, grain, fruit, and vegetable items.
Trump Moves to Expand List of Allowed Staple Foods
On April 5, 2022, the Donald Trump administration proposed a new federal regulation adding canned spray cheese, beef jerky, lemon juice, and pimiento-stuffed olives to the list of staple foods approved for SNAP purchase.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture stated the change would save SNAP grocery vendors money “under the revised minimum stocking requirements for staple foods.” Under the proposed rule, stores could stock up to six fewer staple items, resulting in a savings of about $500 per store over a period of five years.
According to the Federal Register notice of the proposed rule, canned spray cheese would qualify as a dairy product staple, beef jerky as a meat, poultry or fish staple, and lemon juice and jarred pimiento-stuffed olives would qualify as staple fruits and vegetables.
Do You Have to Be Employed to Get Food Stamps?
Most SNAP participants who can work, do work. The law requires all SNAP recipients to meet work requirements unless they are exempt because of age or disability or another specific reason. More than 65% of all SNAP recipients are non-working children, seniors, or disabled persons.
Some working SNAP recipients are classified as Able-Bodied Adult Without Dependents or ABAWDs. In addition to the general work requirements, ABAWDs are required meet special work requirements in order to maintain their eligibility.
The ABAWD Time Limit
ABAWDs are persons between the ages of 18 and 49 who have no dependents and are not disabled. ABAWDs can only get SNAP benefits for 3 months during any 3 year period if they do not meet certain special work requirements.
In order to remain eligible beyond the time limit, ABAWDs must work at least 80 hours per month, participate in qualifying education and training activities at least 80 hours per month, or participate in an unpaid state-approved workfare program. ABAWDs can also meet the work requirement by taking part in a SNAP Employment and Training Program.
The ABAWD time limit does not apply to people who are unable to work due to physical or mental health reasons, pregnant, care for a child or incapacitated family member, or are exempt from the general work requirements.
For More Information
If you would like more information, the USDA's Food and Nutrition Service offers an extensive Questions and Answers Web page on the SNAP food stamp program.