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What Are the Qualifications for Food Stamps?

By Jack Cassidy
Updated May 16, 2024
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Since October 2008, the United States' Food Stamp Program has been known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Food stamps, or SNAP benefits as they are sometimes called, help low-income families put nutritious, healthy food on the table. Though local state agencies administer and process individual applications and oversee the distribution of food stamp benefits, eligibility standards are set at the federal level. The qualifications for food stamps include a household asset limit, two household income standards, work requirements for certain able-bodied applicants and legal U.S. residential status.

To participate in SNAP, applicants must submit an accounting of the household’s assets. Countable asset resources include cash, bank accounts, stocks and bonds. The asset qualifications for food stamps are subject to certain exemptions, including the value of a house and lot and, in some cases, the value of household vehicles. For SNAP eligibility, total countable assets may not exceed $2,000 US Dollars (USD) in total, or $3,000 USD if a member of the household is 60 or older.

Income qualifications for food stamps include two related measures for most households. First, a household’s gross monthly income must be equal to or below 130 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines. Second, a household’s net monthly income must be equal to or below 100 percent of the Federal poverty guidelines. There are several income deductions allowed, including two standard deductions applicable to most households and other deductions for certain medical expenses and child support payments. Federal poverty guidelines work on a sliding scale according to the size of the household in question.

In most cases, able-bodied adults without dependents who are age 18-50 must be employed or must participate in a formal employment training program to maintain food stamp benefits beyond three months in a 36-month period. Before food stamp benefits are distributed, potential recipients must meet locally instituted work and training registration requirements. For example, in Massachusetts, non-exempt SNAP applicants must enroll in a SNAP Food Stamp Work Program to receive benefits. Certain people are exempt from the work requirement, including the elderly and those who have children younger than 6 years old.

The last of the major qualifications for food stamps deals with an applicant’s residential status in the U.S. Any U.S. citizen who meets the preceding requirements and has a Social Security number is eligible for food stamp benefits. A limited number of non-citizens also are eligible for benefits, including those born in U.S. territories such as American Samoa, certain members of American Indian tribes and members of certain Hmong and Highland Laotian tribes living legally in the U.S. Non-citizens who have been granted asylum or refugee status in the U.S. might be eligible for SNAP benefits. Other qualified aliens also might be eligible.

How To Apply for Food Stamps

While the application process for food stamps may seem complicated to some at first, the reality is that it is actually very simple. To begin the process, all you need to do is access the FSSA website. On their portal, there will be a link that will allow you to apply for food stamps. Once you begin the application, you will need to provide basic information, like your name and address.

Along with that, you will also need to provide information about your income and other assets. Based on the information you provide in this initial step, it will be decided whether or not you may be eligible. If it appears that you may be eligible for food stamps, then you will need to do an interview with a representative.

Once you have filled out your application online, the next step is to wait. Often, the FSSA document center will then send you correspondence in the mail, giving you detailed information about the forms that you will need to provide to them. Depending on availability, you may be required to meet in person at an FSSA office, or do a phone interview.

When speaking to the FSSA representative, you will be asked a series of questions. Many of them will relate to your household size and the income and assets of those residing within your household. You will also be required to provide them with copies of forms that can prove citizenship, as well as pay stubs and other documentation related to your monthly living expenses. In many cases, the representative that you are speaking to may be able to tell you whether or not you are approved at the end of the interview, as well as how much you can expect to receive on a monthly basis. If this does not happen, you can expect to receive correspondence from the FSSA through the mail.

What Can You Buy With Food Stamps?

When it comes to using your food stamps, you will primarily only be able to use them for food. However, the types of food you can buy and the places where you can purchase food may vary from state to state. For the most part, you will only be able to use your food stamps at grocery stores. That being said, there may be some exceptions. Some gas stations may accept food stamps, and some restaurants may accept them as well, under certain circumstances in select states.

You can typically buy a wide range of foods at the grocery store with your food stamps. Not only can you buy things like fresh produce, meat, dairy products, and eggs, but you can also buy a wide range of packaged foods, too. In fact, the only kind of foods that there might be restrictions on within a grocery store are some foods available in the deli. Things like candy and energy drinks are also able to be purchased with food stamps. However, substances like alcohol and tobacco are not. While it is possible to buy whatever foods you may like with your food stamps, it may be beneficial to take some time to plan out your grocery shopping trips, to make sure that you are getting the most out of your funds for the month.

Do Food Stamps Roll Over?

If you still have a balance left on your food stamp card at the end of the month, it will roll over into your next month. The day of the month that you receive food stamps varies and often depends on the first letter of your last name. The closer your last initial is to the beginning of the alphabet, the earlier on in the month you will receive your food stamps. Typically, you will receive your funds on the same day of each month.

Additionally, food stamp funds are loaded onto a card that you will use at the grocery store. When you get your card in the mail, you will be able to choose your own personal pin number. Beyond that, those that also receive cash assistance will be able to use the same card to access those funds as well.

If you want to keep track of your balance for the month, the remaining balance will be printed on your receipt. You can also check your EBT balance by calling their customer service number, or by checking your balance online. There is also an app available that will track your balance for you, as well.

What Are Food Stamps?

The first food stamp program was started in 1939 because there was a surplus of food and widespread unemployment. Participants could purchase orange stamps in an amount equal to their normal expenditures. For every $1 of orange stamps they bought, they also received $0.50 in blue stamps, which could be used to purchase surplus food. The program ended in 1943 because the conditions it started under were no longer extant.

In 1961, President Kennedy announced the opening of a food stamp pilot program, and in 1964, Congress passed the Food Stamp Act, bringing the food stamp system under congressional control. Participants had to purchase stamps, and were given an amount greater than their purchase to have access to a more nutritionally diverse diet.

The act established boundaries on what could and couldn’t be purchased with food stamps. The Agriculture and Consumer Protection Act of 1973 expanded food stamp purchases to include food-bearing seeds and plants.

The Food and Agriculture Act of 1977 eliminated the requirement of purchasing food stamps, as it had become cumbersome. It also penalized households where people quit their jobs and established a job search requirement.

In the mid- to late-1980s, there was a severe hunger problem in the U.S. Small improvements were made after severe cutbacks in the early 1980s. The Food Stamp Act of 1985 required states to provide an employment and training (E&T) program by April of 1987. Components of the E&T programs had to include at least one of the following:

  • Job hunting
  • Job hunt training
  • Workfare
  • Work experience

In 1984, the first Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) debit card was tested in Pennsylvania. Congressional acts in the ensuing years expanded the EBT program until all states had implemented it.

The mid-1990s saw drastic welfare reform, and participation in the food stamp program declined markedly. In 2002, food stamp benefits were expanded again, and the process was streamlined at the state level. In 2008, to eliminate stigma, the program was renamed to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

The 2014 Farm Bill looked at using mobile apps and online processes for applying for and receiving SNAP benefits. It also fortified the E & T program to improve participants’ chances of getting good-paying jobs and moving out of the SNAP program.

How to Apply for Food Stamps Online?

Every state has an online presence regarding SNAP benefits. It may be through the Department of Community Based Services, the Cabinet for Health and Family Services, the Family and Social Services Administration, or another similar governmental agency.

As of February 12, 2022, 48 states plus the District of Columbia allow for online applications for SNAP. Idaho and Wyoming allow you to download the forms from their websites, but require the applications to be submitted by mail, fax or in person.

These online applications will ask for your basic information, including name, address, phone number, email address and Social Security number. They also ask about your income and assets. Assets include things such as the amount of money you have in the bank or your car.

Based on this preliminary information, the website will tell you whether or not you meet the requirements to qualify for SNAP benefits. It will look at both your gross and your net income. Gross income is the money you make before any taxes are taken out. Your net income is your actual take-home pay after taxes. For example, in 2022, the monthly income cap for a family of four is $2,209 net and $2,871 gross.

If you meet the income cap requirements, you can continue with your application. You may receive an email or letter listing additional documents that are required to verify your citizenship and income, such as your birth certificate, tax returns or pay stubs.

Can College Students Get Food Stamps?

The short answer? Maybe. If the college student meets the initial SNAP requirements and is enrolled less than half-time in college, they may receive benefits. Other students may be approved if they meet certain exemptions. These include:

  • Being under 18 or over 50 years old
  • Having a disability
  • Working 20 or more hours a week
  • Caring for a child younger than 6 years old
  • Participating in work-study or an on-the-job training program
  • Being a single parent to a child under 12 while enrolled full-time in college
  • Under the current public health emergency, simply being eligible for work-study, no matter whether you’re participating or not

Every person in the U.S. deserves to have access to nutritious food. The SNAP program allows that to happen for our less well-off citizens. If you believe your family might be eligible for SNAP benefits, don’t hesitate; apply today.

SmartCapitalMind is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Discussion Comments
By anon1003789 — On Sep 07, 2020

I have a son, daughter n law and granddaughter in Flordia. My daughter n law is a nurse however she went out of work 2 weeks ago to have a baby. It arrived on Sept 4th.

My son is the only sole income at this moment for at least 4 months.

They have high rent, 1 car payment, Utility bills, phone bills. Is there a way they can just get snap until she returns to work?

By amypollick — On May 23, 2013

@anon335768: You can't get restaurant foods with food stamps. In general, you can't even get deli foods like sliced meats and cheeses. This is a shame, because these foods are generally more wholesome than stuff like bologna, which is permitted.

Also, a person can't even go to a store deli and pick up something like a rotisserie chicken, which could serve for two or three meals, with a little planning.

The sad part is that many people who could really use food stamps don't apply because they don't have a way to cook food conveniently.

At least people can't get alcohol with food stamps. That's a good thing.

By anon335768 — On May 23, 2013

Since the program is for wholesome, nutritious food, all sugar laden, highly processed foods should be banned. Fresh produce and economical meat (not processed meat), as well as essentials like sanitary products, paper towels and laundry detergent should be covered. All junk food should be prohibited, as well as restaurant foods. There are very few nutrients in them and they are damaging to health and the government supplies that too.

I have less than two-thirds of poverty income and get a whopping $16 in food stamps and have a choice of meds or food each month and the government is planning to cut my unemployment, Social Security and food stamps because I make too much money. Figure that one out! Did I mention I am 67 years old and disabled?

By anon277672 — On Jul 01, 2012

I watch the grocery belt in Ohio of people unloading loads of sugar laden foods like pop tarts, Lucky Charms, Coca Cola, ginger ale, and Dorito's and then pay for it with food stamps. I work and can't afford that stuff. I would like to get my kids to have a treat occasionally. Why do food stamps not just provide for regular groceries? How come that stuff is covered when I can't even afford it, and it is given away by the government through the food stamp program?

By anon251630 — On Mar 01, 2012

Can a person (low income) qualify for food stamps if the person is currently under a garnishment?

By jessica500 — On May 02, 2011

I tried to use the food stamp calculator on my state's food stamp site. How close to being accurate to the true amount is this calculator?

By DFMeyers — On May 01, 2011

I helped my sister apply for food stamps online a couple of months ago. After filling our her online application she got a letter stating that she should go to the office. She had an interview and they gave her a food stamp card that day. She is going through a divorce and really need the help.

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