The process to apply and receive food stamps varies by state. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, approximately 31 million people in the U.S. access the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, which provides food stamps. Those in need of nutritional assistance can sign up for the SNAP program through their local Department of Health and Human Services, or DHS or DHHS.
Before receiving food stamps, an individual must make an appointment with a DHS caseworker after submitting an application for the SNAP program. During the interview, the caseworker will review the household’s income, eligibility for the program and employment status. Generally, during the interview, the DHS caseworker can tell the applicant how much his family can receive per month in food stamps. Depending on the state the applicant lives in, he will receive his food stamps right away or within 30 days. A state that has a 30-day approval period before issuing food stamp benefits may provide expedited benefits in as little as seven days to those who need emergency food or have a qualifying income.
Those who receive SNAP benefits receive an electronic benefit transfer, or EBT, card that works similarly to a debit card. SNAP beneficiaries receive a predetermined amount of funds on an EBT card, which they can use at a grocery or convenient store for the purchase of food items. The amount an individual spends on food at a grocery store gets deducted from the balance on the EBT card. In a state that provides food stamps immediately after a DHS interview, a client will receive her EBT card during the meeting with the appropriate amount of funds on the card. Alternatively, in states that have an approval period, a client may receive an EBT card during the DHS interview, but it will not have any funds applied to it until the approval of the application. A SNAP client receives the same amount of food benefits every month as long the household qualifies for the program.
To be eligible for food stamps, an applicant must be a U.S. citizen or legal resident of the U.S. Those who receive Supplemental Security Income through the Social Security Administration and homeless children and teens may also qualify for the SNAP program. According to the USDA, an eligible household must not have more than $2,000 in assets, not including real estate property. At the time of publication, a household’s net income cannot be more than 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines, according to the USDA.
Households that receive food stamps can use an EBT card to purchase food items like cereal, grains, produce, dairy products and seeds to grow vegetables. Some vendors at farmer’s markets even accept food stamps. However, there are consumables that the USDA does not consider as a food item. Such items include alcohol, tobacco, drugs, pet food, cleaning supplies and energy drinks. Additionally, SNAP beneficiaries cannot use an EBT card to purchase cooked foods at a restaurant or foods an individual can eat in the supermarket, such as the hot foods sold by the deli counters. In places where a grocery store or similar market is not accessible, SNAP may allow purchases for ready-made hot food from local establishment.