Everyone has heard about “food stamps” in one way or another, but many people don’t know how the system actually works unless they have used it themselves. Well, I’m going to try to give a quick summary of the U.S. food stamp system known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program).
Before I get started, I think the psychology behind SNAP should be addressed as well. Many people don’t necessarily want to be seen with “food stamps” because there is a stigma associated with it. In recent years, SNAP moved away from physical stamps to a debit card system (known as “EBT” = electronic benefits transfer) to overcome the hesitancy and encourage people who need this program to utilize it. I, myself, used food stamps at one time in my life, and I have to say that I’m glad I did. Is the process tedious? Yeah, sure but nothing in life is truly free and I think the process of getting SNAP is worth it for those who need it.
How does it work?
For people who are eligible for the program, you fill out some paperwork and apply. Once accepted, which should be done within 30 days of them receiving your application, your state SNAP office will send you a debit card that automatically gets refilled every month. You can use this when you check out at grocery stores, and the receipt you receive will have information about your remaining balance.
Here’s what my card looked like from when I used SNAP:
How much money do you get?
There is a special algorithm the SNAP office uses to determine how much money you get every month. The more people in your family, the more money you qualify for. But the amount you receive is not additive – meaning if 1 person gets $X per month, having 2 people doesn’t mean you get $2X.
For a more in-depth explanation: https://www.cbpp.org/research/a-quick-guide-to-snap-eligibility-and-benefits
Who is it for?
The criteria varies by state, but the USDA has a pre-screening tool so you can find out if you qualify (https://www.snap-step1.usda.gov/fns/). Eligibility for SNAP depends on the number of people in your household, the salary of members of the household, and a few other factors. Check out the tool and see!
How do I apply?
Each state differs and has their own application, but check out this site to find out depending on where you live: https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/apply.
Where can I use them?
Most grocery stores will have stickers on the outside of their store saying “SNAP accepted”. I know Whole Foods accepts it with the exception of being able to buy food from the “hot food stations” or alcohol.
Something I learned recently was that SNAP is accepted at some Farmer’s Markets. For example, Fresh Access Bucks (FreshAccessBucks.com) is an awesome program in Florida that incentivizes nutrition by doubling their monetary benefits at farmers markets, mobile markets, and Community Support Agriculture programs (CSAs). (In simpler terms, they give you more money if you buy fruits and veggies. This encourages good eating habits that don’t have to be limited by money.)
Is SNAP controversial? Can people abuse the system?
One of the common criticisms about the program is the fear that people will abuse the system (e.g. exchanging SNAP benefits for money). THANKFULLY, the USDA has performed several studies that shows that the rate of abuse is very low. Thanks to the new EBT system, there is a lot more regulation on the system.
For more info: https://www.fns.usda.gov/fraud/what-snap-fraud
What’s the catch?
Like I said, the process can be a bit tedious. Most people have to re-apply for the program every 6-months. Once you apply the first time, the renewal process becomes easier and can be a great way of getting food on the table when your budget is tight.
For anyone interested in learning more about this program, check out these two websites: