The Federal Food Stamp Program is now called the SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program); and SNAP applicants are issued an EBT (electronic Benefit Transfer) card to use in participating stores instead of providing paper food stamp coupons. You simply swipe the EBT card in the same card reader that is used for credit and debit cards when you pay for groceries, place it in your PIN number and that is it!
SNAP and its supporters have a lot of detractors, mostly people who believe like low-income people should be restricted in what they can purchase with public funds. Critics of those critics would say their shopping lists are intrusive to prescribe. Generally, the rules limit SNAP purchases to food products, with some limitations and exceptions.
Here are some pointers to remember for using it:
At the end of your purchase transaction, you should be able to see how much money is left in your account.
You can’t debit a higher amount than the cash register total and get cash back.
Most participating stores indicate that they are SNAP members by displaying a sign in their window, but if you’re not sure, ask at the service counter or one of the cashiers. (The sign might say something like “We Accept Food Stamps, EBT, or SNAP Benefits.”)
You can buy most types of edible items in categories that you’d find in a supermarket: dairy, meats, produce, and so on. (Seeds that will be used to grow edible foods are also eligible.)
Your EBT card is good in all 50 states, even though you may have enrolled in one particular state. (The card doesn’t work in Puerto Rico but does in the District of Columbia, Guam, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.)
Any food stamp benefits that you don’t use in one month will be carried over to the next month. However, if you don’t use your SNAP card for a year, you will no longer be entitled to receive benefits.
What you can buy with SNAP
Here is the list of food items you are allowed to purchase with your SNAP Benefits card:
live seafood, such as lobster, fish, and shellfish
pumpkins (as long as they are edible)
birthday cakes (the non-edible piece of the cake cannot exceed 50 percent)
seeds and plants that produce food for the household
energy drinks (must have a nutrition label)
meats, fish, poultry
deli meats and steak
Energy drinks such as Red Bull have been eligible for purchase with food stamps since 2013, when companies producing them began updating their labels to list “nutrition facts” rather than “supplement facts.” Opponents have sought to get them excluded from eligibility, but as long as they are labeled as food products, they are likely to remain.
Since they are simply food goods, with food stamps, you can in principle buy steak, lobster, shrimp or any other high-end food. Legislators have proposed eliminating these products from the system, but there is little need in reality: data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates that people in the income group who are small enough to apply for SNAP hardly buy any beef or seafood (only about 10 percent of the average monthly bill), because it is too costly.
The perception that a lot of SNAP recipients are buying fast food is quite accurate. An study of USDA in 2011 showed that 23 cents of every SNAP dollar goes to sweetened beverages, cookies, salty snacks, candy and sugar. (The other 77 cents go to meal supplies such as milk , bread, meat, cereals and vegetables.) Non-SNAP households, however, spent 20 cents of every dollar on the same sweet treat. So shopping patterns were identical, no matter how you paid.
Nutritionists have expressed concern over the volume of SNAP-funded processed food sales, which is intended to improve health and not lead to health concerns such as obesity. But attempts to cut SNAP junk food run into both complexity and the discomfort of making the government the judge of which foods are worthy and which are not.
Another solution, outlined in a 2016 paper in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, would be to include incentives for nutritious food purchases, either alone or in tandem with restrictions on purchases of processed foods.
While you can’t buy hot prepared food items, you can buy baked goods. Muffins, cakes, and cookies purchased at grocery stores and some bakeries are fair game.
You can buy your Halloween pumpkins with Pop, since they are technically edible — but not decorative gourds. Gift boxes, prefilled stocks or prefilled Easter boxes may also be ordered, but only if at least 50 percent of the contents are edible items and there are no prohibited items in the basket. You might buy a holiday stocking, for example, with a few small toys and loads of sweets, but not a huge stuffed bear carrying a small chocolate box.
You can purchase coffee to make at home, in any form, with your SNAP card. This includes single-use pods such as K-Cups, instant coffee, cappuccino mix, whole bean, or fresh ground coffee.
Taco Bell (sometimes)
The vast majority of SNAP recipients are limited to buying groceries with SNAP. But in some states, elderly, disabled, and homeless SNAP recipients can participate in the Restaurant Meals Program. In Arizona, participating restaurants include Taco Bell, Denny’s, Subway, and others.
In 2014, SNAP began allowing participants to purchase seeds and plants that produce food, and launched a site to encourage gardening.
Produce at the farmers market
New fruits and vegetables, as well as homemade jams and honey, can be legally purchased on the farmers ‘ markets. The only catch is that most stands welcome cash only, while the SNAP is a debit card. The government is working with local markets to change that, including publishing a directory of farmers’ markets accepting SNAP, and setting up incentive programs such as bonuses for SNAP users.
Food from online grocers
The USDA runs a pilot program which allows SNAP users to order online grocery stores. This could be a boost for people living in food shortages and the elderly and disabled people, not to mention children’s parents and others who work long hours and are unable to get to the supermarket. (See also: 6 Ways to deliver your foodstuffs May Save You Money)
While you cannot use SNAP for alcohol, you can buy mocktails, bloody mary mix, tonic water, or margarita mix
Things you can’t buy with SNAP
Though we’ve only described a wide variety of products you can purchase, there are also plenty of stuff you’re not allowed to buy with SNAP benefits. Some make perfect sense; there’s no way taxpayers will fund sales of cigarettes or alcohol. But there are legitimate reasons that one should cover some of the following products.
Here’s what you CANNOT buy with your SNAP benefits:
hot food (prepared for immediate consumption)
medicines and vitamins
Often those hot roasted chickens in the deli are cheaper, pound for pound, than the raw chicken. And for those who don’t have access to a kitchen, several healthy meals, including chicken tacos or chicken salad, may include them. Most SNAP receivers, however, can not buy any hot prepared foods, like these.
You can not use SNAP to purchase household products such as soap, laundry detergent, diapers, sanitary napkins, or toilet paper, because they are not food. This restriction can be a hassle for SNAP recipients because these things are necessary.
A petition recently earned more than 230,000 signatures calling for the federal government to include pet food in the SNAP plan. While there is a valid argument that pet ownership is a luxury that shouldn’t be supported by the American taxpayer, the counterargument is that pet owners who fall into poverty are more likely to give up or give up pets if they can’t feed them — and housing these pets in shelters or euthanizing them is costing the public money.
Grocery bag fees
Regional governments are increasingly reducing waste by allowing supermarkets to charge for grocery bags. SNAP can not be used to pay those fees, and SNAP users may not be exempted from local law. So users of SNAP can either carry their own bags, or be prepared to pay with cash for disposable bags.
Food shipping charges
SNAP users participating in the trial of online grocery ordering must pay any delivery or convenience fees in cash.
Although you could buy live crabs to eat at home, you can not use your SNAP card to purchase a piglet to raise or a cow to milk — even if it would save you money and have more nutritious food in the long run. Livestock is actually not a part of the programme.
Alcohol and cigarettes
Alcohol and cigarettes aren’t food, they’re not nutritious, and the public doesn’t want to pay for them.
What happens if you buy Products You Shouldn’t
The EBT card does not block such transactions automatically! If you use your EBT card in a store and plan to buy items on the above list, you can separate your orders-do not depend on your EBT card or cashier to distinguish these items from each other. Even if you didn’t think it would happen, if one of these transactions goes through on your EBT card you will still face sanctions.
If you use your EBT card to buy these items, DHHS will immediately set up a hearing to decide whether you have violated the law or not. You’ll keep getting the perks until the hearing.
If DHHS finds you have used your EBT card to buy banned products, then the penalties are very severe. Firstly, any money spent on banned products would have to be repaid. You will also lose advantages on:
3 months the first time
1 year the second time, and
2 years every time after that.
Why is it so important not to let anyone have my card or my PIN number?
If another uses your card, you lose. So, protecting your card, and your PIN, is important, as if they were cash. Never type your PIN on your wallet, too. If you lose your wallet, then someone has your card as well as your PIN. Call 1-800-477-7428 if you lose your card, or need to change your PIN.
How can I get cash?
If you are earning financial benefits ( e.g. TANF), certain retailers will send you cashback on the cost of your purchase. Some stores can allow for cash withdrawal without purchasing. Policy controls on the shop. For example, Hannaford and Shaws will allow cash withdrawal of up to $200 per day, if you make a purchase. You can make withdrawals for ATM, too. You will have two free ATM withdrawals per month at non-extra chargeable ATMs. Each additional use of ATMs will cost you 65 cents.
How can I avoid surcharges?
Many areas have no surcharges. For example, 385 out of 560 locations in York and Cumberland County were surcharge-free (at program start). So buy around, to avoid surcharges. Also, note that you’ll be paid 65 cents for each additional withdrawal after two ATM withdrawals in one month.
Can I make a food purchase and a cash purchase at the same time?
Yes, assuming that store accepts the use of the card for both. However, you have to swipe the card and enter your PIN twice. This will be two separate transactions.
What if I run into problems trying to use my card?
Dial Customer Service Number 1-800-477-7428 toll-free at any time, day or night. Just get your card ready. You are asked to enter your card number, to get past the answering service by machine.
Can I use my card if I am out of state?
Can I still use my food supplements at the local farmer’s market?
Yes. Farmers’ markets can still use paper coupons to accept food supplements. Some may be configured to use your card, too.