How Do Food Stamps Work?

by Jeannine Mancini ; Updated July 27, 2017

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the federal program that replaced food stamps. Through the program, low-income households can receive monthly benefits that allow them to purchase qualifying grocery and food items. Benefits are deposited electronically onto a state-issued Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. You can use your benefits to purchase a variety of foods at participating stores. State laws vary on how long you can receive SNAP benefits. In some states, the limit depends on whether or not you're working. Generally, there's no time limit for working households.

EBT Cards

Although the design of the EBT card varies among states, the card looks and works like a debit card. Go to any register of a participating store to pay for your items. Swipe your EBT card and select the "EBT" payment method, followed by SNAP, and enter your Personal Identification Number (PIN) to complete the transaction. Your EBT card will work in any state. You aren't limited to using your benefits in the issuing state. If you have any issues or problems with your EBT card, contact your state's EBT customer service line directly. For questions about your SNAP benefits, you need to contact your case worker at your local SNAP office.

What You Can Buy

The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 defines what qualifies as food. You can buy a variety of food items, such as bread, milk, meat, produce, condiments, boxed meals, bottled water, milk and juice. There are no restrictions on the type of food you can buy with SNAP. Soda, cakes, ice cream candy, gum and chips are classified as SNAP-eligible foods. Luxury items are covered, including steak, lobster, crab and sushi. Food from a store's deli department is also covered, including sliced meats and cheese, prepared salads and subs. You can purchase coffee, including ground coffee, instant coffee or espresso, bottled coffee beverages and coffee pods. You may buy energy drinks if there's a nutrition label. Without a nutrition label, the drink may be classified as a supplement, which isn't a qualifying item.

What You Can't Buy

You can't buy vitamins, medicine, beer, wine, liquor, malt beverages or tobacco. Household items like pet food and soap are excluded. Hot prepared foods, such as chicken tenders or rotisserie chicken, are excluded.

Participating Stores

Nearly all stores that sell groceries or eligible items accept SNAP benefits. Grocery stores, convenience stores, farmers markets and even pharmacies like Walgreens and CVS Pharmacy accept SNAP. Many Dollar Tree, Family Dollar and Dollar General stores also accept SNAP. A list of participating retailers in your area can be found using the SNAP Retailer Locator tool on the USDA Food and Nutrition Service website.

Tax

Retailers can't charge state or local sales tax on SNAP purchases. Even if you're buying qualifying food items typically subject to tax, such as soda or candy, the sales tax isn't assessed on those items.

Coupons

If you're going to pay with SNAP, you can use coupons to stretch your benefits further. Stores that accept coupons from cash customers are legally required to treat SNAP customers the same way, which includes accepting coupons. You are entitled to use manufacturer and store coupons. You may also use coupons at SNAP-participating stores that double the face value of a coupon.

WIC

The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC) is designed to provide healthy food to low-income pregnant women, breastfeeding and postpartum mothers, infants and children up to age 5. Benefits are deposited onto an EBT card. If you're receiving SNAP, the benefits are accessed on the same card. You can use both SNAP and WIC benefits to pay for a purchase. First, pay for your WIC-eligible items. After your WIC items are deducted, you can swipe your card again and select SNAP to pay for the remaining items.

About the Author

Jeannine Mancini, a Florida native, has been writing business and personal finance articles since 2003. Her articles have been published in the Florida Today and Orlando Sentinel. She earned a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies from the University of Central Florida.