Food retailers must apply to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and be approved in order to accept food stamps. To qualify, they must sell food traditionally prepared at home and meant for human consumption. Available food also must fall into specific categories, such as meat, poultry and fish. Grocery stores routinely fit these requirements.
Understand Your EBT Card
When you are approved for food stamps, your state's human services agency will issue you an Electronic Benefits Transfer card, popularly known as an EBT card. This is the same card cash assistance is deposited onto for applicants eligible for the General Relief or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program. The EBT card will have your name and card number embossed on the front and a magnetic strip on the back. Your food stamp benefits are deposited onto the card each month. Once the money hits your account, you can use the card to purchase food. Take your groceries to the cash register at your local food retailer and then submit your EBT card for payment. The purchase is deducted from your food stamp balance.
Know Which Foods are Acceptable
You can use your food stamps to purchase food in the following categories: meat, fish, poultry, dairy, bread, cereal, vegetables, and fruits. Food stamps also can be used to purchase the plants and seeds necessary for establishing a food garden that will serve as a food source. You also can use your benefits to purchase food for your baby, including formula, juice and cereal. However, you generally cannot use food stamps to purchase hot food, liquor, cigarettes, vitamins or medicine.
Visit Approved Food Retailers
Food stamps can be used at grocery stores and farmers markets that accept your EBT card. You can search for retailers that accept your EBT on the U.S. Department of Food and Drug Administration's website. Such retailers will often have a prominent sign in the front window that reads "EBT" or "EBT Accepted Here." Keep in mind, however, that some of these retailers may only accept EBT cash benefits, so specifically ask whether EBT food stamps are accepted upon entrance to be sure. As when paying with other methods, such as cash or a debit or credit card, you can use coupons to reduce your overall food total when purchasing food with your EBT card.
Utilize the Restaurant Meals Program
One exception to the hot food restriction is the Restaurant Meals Program. The program is only available in some states and is administered at the county level. Only homeless, disabled and elderly food stamp recipients are eligible to participate. Under the program, they can use their EBT card to purchase food at participating restaurants, including fast food retailers. If you fall into an eligible recipient group, you can locate restaurants that accept EBT by contacting your state's human services agency. Some, like San Francisco County, make this information available online.
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Eligible Food Items
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: SNAP Retail Merchants
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Is My Store Eligible?
- U.S. Department of Agriculture: Where Can I Use SNAP EBT?
- City and County of San Francisco Human Services Agency: Using CalFresh Benefits
- 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.
Based on the West Coast, Mary Jane Freeman has been writing professionally since 1994, specializing in the topics of business and law. Freeman's work has appeared in a variety of publications, including LegalZoom, Essence, Reuters and Chicago Sun-Times. Freeman holds a Master of Science in public policy and management and Juris Doctor. Freeman is self-employed and works as a policy analyst and legal consultant.