More than 30 million Americans receive extra help each month to pay for groceries through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or food stamps. Food stamps are coordinated and issued by individual states, but the rules and expectations for program participants are the same for everyone. To ensure that you get the most out of your food stamp benefits, follow some simple do’s and don’ts.
Apply for Benefits
If you think you might be eligible for food stamps, you should apply. While the federal government sets the general income guidelines for food stamp eligibility, based on how your income compares to federal poverty level guidelines, you can take certain deductions from your income for expenses related to housing, utilities, child care and medical payments that may make you eligible for assistance. The only way you can be sure if you qualify for food stamps is to apply and allow a caseworker to determine your eligibility. If you are not eligible, ask why. You are entitled to a fair hearing to find out why you are not eligible and to plead your case.
Use Your Benefits
Use your food stamp benefits, even if your monthly benefit amount is small. Unused benefits carry over from month to month, but if you do not use your electronics benefit transfer (EBT) card at least once in a calendar year, your SNAP benefits will be permanently canceled.
Follow the Rules
Follow the food stamp rules as they are outlined by your state department of social services. Not following the rules can cause you to lose your benefits, either temporarily or permanently, or even lead to fines or jail time. You can only purchase certain items with your food stamp benefits, including fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry and fish; bread and cereal products; frozen foods; and dairy products. You cannot use food stamps to buy pet food, paper and cleaning products, alcohol, tobacco or medicines, or hot and prepared foods meant to be eaten immediately. You cannot trade or sell food stamp benefits, or allow someone else to use your EBT card. Your caseworker will outline other rules and restrictions that you must follow to keep your benefits.
Use the Resources
Take advantage of food stamp and nutrition education offered by your local social services office. These courses can help you maximize your food stamp benefits. In some states, you are required to take these courses.
Maximize Your Benefit
Maximize your food stamp benefits by taking advantage of sales and coupon offers. The USDA expects that households receiving food stamp benefits will contribute to the monthly food budget — food stamps are only meant to supplement that budget — so don’t rely entirely on food stamps to meet your grocery needs. Plan your shopping trips to coincide with sales, shop with a list and plan meals in advance to save money.
Do not falsify information on your food stamp application. If you are caught, you could lose your food stamp benefits permanently or face fines and jail time. If your household circumstances change, notify your caseworker immediately. Most state offices conduct regular audits of food stamp benefits and you could face consequences for not reporting a change in your income or household.
- USDA Food and Nutrition Service: 10 Steps to Help You Fill Your Grocery Bag Through SNAP
- Food and Nutrition Service. "SNAP Data Tables, Latest Available Month July 2019 State Level Participation & Benefits," Accessed Oct. 21, 2019.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture. "Official USDA Food Plans: Cost of Food at Home at Four Levels, U.S. Average, August 2019," Accessed Oct. 21, 2019.
- Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "A Quick Guide to SNAP Eligibility and Benefits," Accessed Oct. 21, 2019.
- USDA." What Can SNAP Buy?" Accessed Oct. 21, 2019.
An adjunct instructor at Central Maine Community College, Kristen Hamlin is also a freelance writer on topics including lifestyle, education, and business. She is the author of Graduate! Everything You Need to Succeed After College (Capital Books), and her work has appeared in Lewiston Auburn Magazine, Young Money, USA Today and a variety of online outlets. She has a B.A. in Communication from Stonehill College, and a Master of Liberal Studies in Creative Writing from the University of Denver.