24 Important Things to Know When Applying for Food Assistance Programs

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Nutritional Supplements

As the coronavirus pandemic has unfolded across the country putting millions of people out of work, demand for food assistance has skyrocketed. Outside one food bank in Pittsburgh in early April, the line of cars waiting to pick up provisions stretched for miles. At the same time, enrollment in SNAP, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, has steadily climbed alongside the nation's historic unemployment figures. Wading through the bureaucratic application requirements for government programs like SNAP can be daunting, particularly for those who've never done it before. Adding to the complexity is the fact that the benefits are delivered at the state level with varying rules and application processes. To help, we've assembled some key tips and requirements to keep in mind when applying for food assistance. 

Related: Where to Apply for Food Assistance in Every State


What is SNAP?

SNAP is a federally administered program that's been described as the nation's most important anti-hunger program. It dates back to 1939 and is designed to help low-income people who cannot afford to buy food on their own. In 2019, it provided assistance to 38 million people. The program, which is run by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), provides temporary financial benefits to recipients that are delivered monthly via electronic debit cards and can be used to purchase groceries.

Related: Where You Can Use EBT for Grocery Pickup or Delivery

kids in car

Who's Eligible for SNAP?

SNAP has complex rules for determining benefit eligibility and for how benefits themselves are calculated. Broadly, the program is said to be aimed at those who are most at risk, particularly households with children, elderly, or disabled individuals. In fact, about half of SNAP program participants are children.

U.S. Citizen

Who's Not Eligible for SNAP?

The USDA website says SNAP benefits have never been made available to undocumented non-citizens. However, the website also notes that specific requirements for certain lawfully present non-citizens who may be eligible have also changed over the years and continue to evolve. According to the USDA website, certain immigrant groups, asylum seekers, refugees and other non-citizens may be eligible.

pay slip

What Are the Income Limits for Qualifying?

Eligibility is limited to those who have gross monthly incomes up to 130 percent of the federal poverty guidelines and net incomes of 100 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. (Net income is a household's gross income minus certain allowed deductions.) The USDA website spells out the SNAP income limits, detailing the monthly gross and net income thresholds for qualification. For instance, a household of just one person cannot earn a gross monthly income of more than $1,354 or a net income of $1,041 in order to be eligible for SNAP. For a household of two people, the gross income limit is $1,832, while the net income limit is $1,410.

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Eligibility for Seniors and Disabled

Most SNAP eligibility rules apply to all households, according to the USDA website, but there are some special rules for households with elderly (those 60 or older) or disabled members. For instance, a household with an elderly or disabled person only has to meet the net income test, not the gross income test, in order to qualify for benefits. In addition, households that have at least one member who is 60 or older or is disabled may have $3,500 in what's referred to as "countable resources," and still be eligible for SNAP. Countable resources are such things as cash or money in a bank account.

Related: These Grocery Stores Have Special Hours for Seniors and Other At-Risk Shoppers

home owning family

Assets and Resources Not Counted When Determining SNAP Eligibility

There are certain valuable assets and resources that will not be factored into a SNAP application and thus will not make you ineligible for benefits. For instance, if you own a home, its value will not be counted against you when applying for SNAP, nor will the value of the lot the home sits on. In addition, the resources of those who receive Supplemental Security Income (SSI) are excluded from eligibility calculations as is the value of most retirement plans and pension plans, but withdrawals from such accounts may be considered part of your monthly income, depending on how often the withdrawals occur. SSI is a Social Security program aimed at aged, blind, and disabled people who have little or no income. 

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There Are Work Requirements

For those who are not elderly or disabled, there are work requirements that must be met in order to qualify for SNAP benefits. According to the USDA website, these requirements include not voluntarily quitting a job or reducing your work hours. You must also take a job if one is offered to you, and you must participate in employment-training programs if your state of residence happens to require such programs. What's more, able-bodied adults who do not have children must work or be active in a work program for a minimum of 20 hours per week in order to obtain SNAP benefits for longer than three months during a three-year period.


Where Do You Apply for SNAP?

Although it's a federal program, SNAP applications must be submitted on the state level. In other words, you apply in the state where you live. Furthermore, each state has a slightly different application form and process. The USDA website includes an interactive map of the country that guides users to the appropriate local state contacts for applying. Some states may also offer a toll-free SNAP information hotline, and nearly all offer online applications.

SNAP local resources

Where to Find Local Resources

If you need help applying, you may need to contact a local SNAP office in your area. When searching for local government offices that assist with SNAP services, you may find contact information on the state or local government pages of telephone books. In addition, local agencies may also be found by searching related terms such as "Food Stamps," "Social Services," "Human Services," "Public Assistance," or a similar title online for your state or city.

Female Support Worker Visits Senior Woman At Home

What If You Can't Apply Yourself?

If for some reason you're personally unable to go to or call your local SNAP office and you do not have internet access to apply, the program allows another person to act as your authorized representative. That person can apply on your behalf and even participate in the required interview process on your behalf.

young mother with social services or housing officer

What You'll Need to Apply

While applications vary from state to state, documentation requirements may include such things as providing proof of your identity and age; your place of residence; citizenship or immigration status; a valid Social Security number; proof of cash on hand in checking or savings accounts; earned income; proof of unearned income such as child support or interest dividends; and shelter expenses such as your mortgage or rent and utility bills. It's a good idea to gather all these types of documents together before applying.

SNAP eligibility

Guidelines in English and Spanish

The USDA has created step-by-step fact brochures outlining the application process that are available in both English and Spanish on its website. These brochures can be downloaded and printed so that you can keep them handy as you go through the process.



What Happens After an Application Is Submitted?

Some recent news reports have said SNAP has been inundated with applications. However, under normal circumstances, once a person submits an application for SNAP benefits, a local state office will review it and send a notification about whether they're eligible within about one month. Applicants will also be required to complete an eligibility interview during which they provide proof of the information on their application. These interviews often take place via telephone or in person.


Emergency Circumstances

Under certain circumstances this process can be dramatically shortened. The USDA notes that you might be able to obtain SNAP benefits within as little as seven days of applying if you meet specific requirements. These include your household having less than $100 in liquid resources and $150 in monthly gross income. Additionally, if your household's combined monthly gross income and liquid resources are not even enough to pay rent or mortgage bills and your utilities, you may be eligible for expedited benefits. If you meet these criteria, you should contact your state SNAP agency directly.


Answer All Questions Honestly and Be Punctual

Though this should go without saying, it's in your best interest to answer questions on your application honestly. Being dishonest can cause suspension or delay of benefits. In addition, to keep the process moving along in a timely manner, you'll want to respond to requests for any additional information as quickly as possible.

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How Benefits Work

Those who ultimately qualify for SNAP support receive the financial benefits on an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. This card is essentially a debit card. Money will be automatically loaded into an account associated with the card each month. The EBT card can be used like any other debit card at stores to buy groceries.

buying fruits and veggies

What Can You Buy With SNAP Benefits?

Keep in mind that there are specific guidelines regarding what your SNAP financial benefits can be used to purchase. Allowable items include fruits and vegetables; meat, poultry and fish; dairy products; breads and cereals, and even snack foods and non-alcoholic drinks. The money can also be used to buy seeds and plants that produce food for your household to consume.

no smoking no drinking

What Can't Be Purchased With SNAP Benefits?

There's a variety of items that cannot be purchased with your SNAP funds. These include such things as beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, and prepared/fast foods. Recipients are also not allowed to use the money to buy food for pets, cleaning supplies, or personal hygiene products.

man reading bad news

What If You're Rejected for Benefits?

If you apply and are rejected for SNAP benefits, it is possible to appeal your case. The USDA website explains that you may request a "fair hearing with an official who is required by law to review the facts of your case in a fair and objective manner." If you want to appeal a decision, you must request a hearing within 90 days of your application being rejected. This request can be made by telephone, in writing or in person at your local SNAP office.

discrimination prohibited

Discrimination Is Prohibited

One more important note about SNAP benefits: They are available to applicants regardless of race, sex, religion, national origin or even political beliefs. Discrimination based on any of these factors is expressly prohibited. Those who feel they may have been discriminated against during the application process can file a complaint to the USDA.

grocery delivery seniors

Additional Program Options for Seniors

SNAP is not the only federal food assistance program available for those in need. A lesser-known program called the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) provides a monthly package of healthy food. The program was developed to improve the health of those who are low-income and at least 60 years old. It works to supplement the diets of such individuals by providing nutritious USDA foods. In order to be eligible, recipients must have income that is at or below 130 percent of the federal poverty income guidelines.

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What Kind of Food Is Provided by CSFP?

Those eligible for CSFP benefits will receive food packages that include such things as milk, juice, oats, cereals, pasta, peanut butter, dry beans, canned meat, poultry, fish, and canned fruits and vegetables.

USDA eligibility

How to Apply for CSFP Benefits

To find out about your state's participation in the CSFP program, you can visit this page that lists local contacts. In addition, more information about eligibility requirements can be found here

The emergency food assistance program

The Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

One more food assistance program to be aware of is The Emergency Food Assistance Program, or TEFAP. Households that meet income eligibility requirements may receive food support through the program. Income eligibility guidelines for the program are set by each state. Foods provided through this program vary depending on local state supplies and availability but generally include canned and fresh fruits, vegetables, fresh and dried eggs, meat, poultry, fish, milk, cheese and pasta products. To find out more about eligibility requirements and how to apply, visit this page