The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a US government program designed to help financially challenged families and individuals buy food. It was formerly known as the Food Stamp Program, and many people still call it “Food Stamps”.
Because SNAP benefits are meant to provide nutritional assistance, there are limits to what you can buy with them. Let’s look at what you can and can’t buy with food stamps.
How SNAP Works?
Although food stamps were handed out as physical vouchers before, those days are long gone. Nowadays, SNAP benefits are distributed through an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card that you can use to purchase eligible food items at participating retailers.
The program serves millions of individuals and families across the United States and helps alleviate food insecurity and improve overall health outcomes. For 2023, the maximum monthly benefit of SNAP for one person is $281, while families of four can receive up to $939 in most states.
Around 248,000 retailers across the US participate in SNAP, including grocery stores, supermarkets, superstores like Walmart and Target, local food co-ops, farmers markets, specialty stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, gas stations, and even Amazon.
What Can You Buy With Food Stamps?
Most items you can buy with food stamps are, not surprisingly, food. Here are some eligible items:
- Vegetables and fruits. All forms of fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables are eligible, including edible flowers and seaweeds.
- Dairy products. Milk-based products such as whole, skim, and flavored milk, cream, yogurt, cheese, and butter can be purchased with SNAP benefits, along with substitutes like margarine and non-dairy soy, almond, or rice milk.
- Meat, poultry, and fish, including all meats, poultry, seafood, game meat, organ meats, and processed meats, like hot dogs, bacon, and sausages.
- Cereals and bread. This includes grain-based products like bread, bagels, pita, breakfast cereals, rice, pasta, flour, tortillas, crackers, and other grains like quinoa, barley, and couscous.
- Snack foods, including chips, crackers, pretzels, cookies, candy, cakes, nuts, seeds, popcorn, ice cream, and other foods often used as snacks.
- Non-alcoholic beverages, including bottled water, flavored water, sparkling water, juices and juice blends, sports drinks, energy drinks, coffee, tea, and other hot beverages, and soft drinks.
- Ingredients and condiments, including cooking oil, sugar, ketchup, mustard, syrups, spices, and seasonings.
- Seeds and edible plants that produce food for the household.
Some states offer the SNAP Restaurant Meals program, which allows some individuals to purchase meals in approved low-cost restaurants with SNAP benefits. This is usually available only to elderly, disabled, or homeless beneficiaries.
What Can’t You Buy With Food Stamps?
Naturally, you can only buy some items with food stamps. Many items in stores don’t align with the SNAP rules, so it’s impossible to use a SNAP EBT card to buy those products. Let’s see some items that you can’t purchase with food stamps:
- Vitamins, medicines, and supplements. All items with a Supplement Facts label are considered supplements and aren’t eligible for SNAP purchases.
- Hot meals. Unless you qualify for the SNAP Restaurant Meals program, you can’t purchase prepared meals and hot foods at the point of sale with food stamps. That includes meals from a restaurant, deli, or convenience store.
- Alcoholic beverages. You can’t purchase any type of alcoholic drink, including beer, wine, and other types of liquor, with food stamps.
- Tobacco products. You cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, or chewing tobacco.
- Live animals. Buying live animals isn’t possible with food stamps except for fish removed from the water, shellfish, and animals slaughtered before the store pick-up.
- Pet foods, including wet and dry food for cats and dogs, bird seed and feed, hay for small animals, such as rabbits and guinea pigs, and food for other pets, such as fish, reptiles, or small mammals.
- Household supplies, like cleaning supplies, paper products, hygiene items, and cosmetics.
- Non-food luxury items. You cannot use SNAP benefits to purchase non-food luxury items like jewelry, clothing, or electronics.
Some states may have their own rules: in Alaska, you can buy hunting and fishing equipment with SNAP benefits if you plan to feed your family that way! Check your state’s rules for any special exceptions.
How to Use Food Stamps
If you are eligible for SNAP benefits and have received an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, you can start purchasing allowed products with food stamps. There are several ways to use your benefits and get the most out of this program:
- Shop at participating grocery stores: You can use SNAP benefits to purchase eligible food items at participating grocery stores. You can swipe your EBT card at the checkout and enter your PIN to pay for your purchases.
- Shop online: You can use SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online through participating retailers in certain areas. You can use your EBT card to make online purchases, and in some cases, you can use delivery services to receive your groceries at home.
- Use farmer’s markets: Many farmer’s markets accept SNAP benefits. You can use your EBT card at a participating market to purchase eligible food items directly from local farmers, supporting them and contributing to the local economy.
Remember that there are restrictions on what items you can purchase with SNAP benefits; some of them, such as hot prepared foods or non-food items, are not eligible. Also, be mindful of your remaining balance on your EBT card, as you can only spend up to your allotted amount.
To check your balance for SNAP, also known as food stamps, you can:
- Check your last store receipt: Your current SNAP balance is typically printed on your latest store receipt. If you have a recent receipt from a participating grocery store where you used your SNAP benefits, you can check the bottom of the receipt to see your remaining balance.
- Check your EBT card balance online: Log into your account on your state’s EBT website or mobile app to view your SNAP balance. That will allow you to view your current balance and transaction history.
- Call the customer service number that you can find on your EBT card: The back of your EBT card shows a phone number you can dial to connect to the customer service line for your state’s SNAP program. You can use this line to check your balance and ask any questions you may have about your benefits.
All these options will allow you to keep track of your SNAP balance and plan your purchases accordingly.
Check Your SNAP Eligibility
Before you use your SNAP funds, you must see if you’re eligible for the program. If you’re interested in applying for SNAP benefits, you can check your eligibility in several ways. We’ve listed some of the possible options below:
1. Use the SNAP Pre-Screening Tool
The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) provides an online pre-screening tool that can help determine if you are eligible for SNAP benefits. The tool asks questions about your income, household size, and expenses and provides an estimate of your eligibility.
This option is probably the quickest way to determine whether you’re eligible for SNAP funds. The best part is you can complete the whole process from the comfort of your home.
2. Check For Work Requirements
If you are between 16 and 59 and able to work, you will have to meet work requirements to receive benefits for more than three months.
Requirements may include registering for work, participating in training, taking a job if offered, and not quitting a job.
Review the full list of work requirements if you plan to use SNAP.
3. Contact Your Local SNAP Office
If you have additional questions or want to check your SNAP eligibility in person, you can visit your local SNAP office.
Each US state has its unique SNAP program, and you can contact your local office to ask about eligibility requirements and to start the application process. You can find your local SNAP office through the USDA’s SNAP State Directory. That is also an excellent way to immediately get more information about product eligibility in your state or area.
4. Complete an Application
To get SNAP benefits, you will need to complete an application. You can obtain an application from your local SNAP office. The application will ask for information about your household, income, expenses, and other factors that may affect your eligibility.
To apply for SNAP benefits, you will typically need to provide documentation of your income and expenses, such as pay stubs, tax returns, and utility bills. Once your application is complete, the SNAP office will review it and notify you of your eligibility and benefit amount.