What Items Can Be Purchased With EBT Cards?

by Al Bondigas
EBT cards can be used for buying food.

If you use an Electronic Benefits Transfer card when shopping, you will find restrictions on what you can buy. The EBT card is issued under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for low-income people to buy food. However, the federal government uses the EBT card to distribute cash benefits for other programs, so the rules aren’t cast in stone.

Food From Several Sources

You can use your EBT card to buy any food item -- including meat, poultry, fish vegetables or dairy items -- from any store that accepts the cards. But you’re not restricted to just supermarkets. Many convenience stores, independent meat markets and farmers markets also accept the cards. Defining what food is can be tricky, however, based on federal standards. Congress sets these standards, and only congressional legislation can alter the definition.

Seeds and Plants

While you can’t get ornamental plants with an EBT card, any other plant that can be grown into food is eligible. This includes anything that produces fruits or vegetables, including seeds.

Junk Food

Although some may argue that junk food is barely food, items such as soft drinks and potato chips can be bought with an EBT card. Special-occasion foods such as birthday cakes are also eligible, as long as the nonfood decorations don’t carry a higher value than the cake.

Luxury Food Items

Although Congress considered removing luxury food items from its eligibility list, the legislators decided that would create a bureaucratic nightmare. Because of this, you can buy seafood and high-end steaks -- even organic food -- with an EBT card. However, live animals such as fresh lobster pulled directly from the tank are not eligible.

Energy Drinks

According to the USDA Food and Nutrition Service, you can buy some energy drinks with an EBT card. If the label shows a nutritional value, it is considered food and is eligible.

What You Can’t Buy

The EBT card can’t be used to buy hot food or anything meant to be eaten on the premises. This leaves out restaurant meals and those hot, ready-to-eat chicken dinners at the supermarket deli. You also can’t buy paper products, diapers, vitamins, beer, cigarettes or lottery tickets with your EBT card.

Exceptions Under Different Programs

Other government programs such as Temporary Assistance to Needy Families dispense cash assistance through an EBT card. Unlike the SNAP food program, this benefit can be used for nonfood items or to get cash from an ATM machine.

About the Author

Al Bondigas is an award-winning newspaperman who started writing professionally in 1985. His print credits include the "Mohave Valley Daily News" and "The Mohave County Standard." Bondigas studied journalism at San Bernardino Valley College in California.

Photo Credits

  • Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images