Food Stamp Program Eligibility and Benefits

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 What Is the Food Stamp Program?

Food stamp benefits programs can refer to many different social welfare programs that are intended to help people purchase food. Such programs are federally funded and run under the Food and Nutrition Service division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The overall mission of food and nutrition assistance is to increase food security while reducing hunger. Children and low income families are the most common participants in these programs.

In the past, food assistance was referred to as “food stamps” due to the fact that they would receive a stamp book to be used to purchase groceries. Now, these programs generally allot a monthly allowance to be spent on specific items at specific stores through the use of a reloadable card. One popular example would be the “SNAP” Program, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

The term “food stamp laws” is somewhat of a misnomer, although it can be used to describe a specific Act passed in 1964. The Federal Food Stamp Act of 1964 established the rules and system for needy families to access food benefits. Each individual state is responsible for determining and funding eligibility, as well as distributing the benefits. The federal government funds the amount of benefits received. Most commonly, income requirements are what determine rules and eligibility.

However, some states may put additional requirements on receiving benefits under the food stamps program such as showing evidence of applying for a job, or attending a nutrition class. It is important to note that the Food Stamp program is not the only government aided program that provides food to individuals.

There is also the supplemental food program for women, infants, and children, which is known as “WIC” that provides food for pregnant and nursing mothers and infants and children under the age of 5. However, the Federal Food Stamp program is the largest funded governmental food aid program.

What Can a Person Buy with Food Stamps?

Each individual program has its own list of what a recipient can buy using their food assistance benefits. Generally speaking, program recipients can purchase most food items from most grocery stores, so long as the foods are not already prepared. The overall goal of such assistance programs is to provide healthy food to families and individuals who may otherwise go without. As such, allowable items are generally high in nutritious value. Some examples of what a person can buy with food stamps may include, but not be limited to:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables;
  • Fruit juice and bottled water;
  • Meat and seafood;
  • Plants and seeds for growing food;
  • Cereal, oatmeal, and other breakfast food; and
  • Frozen foods.

Some other common examples of what recipients cannot purchase using food assistance funds include, but may not be limited to:

  • Alcoholic beverages;
  • Cigarettes and other tobacco products;
  • Paper products, such as toilet paper, paper towels, paper plates, etc;
  • Vitamins, supplements, and medicine;
  • Cleaning products; and
  • Pet products, such as food, litter, etc.

In terms of where a person may use their food assistance benefits, this is once again determined by individual state designations. In general, most grocery stores and convenience stores accept SNAP payments for allowable items. Additionally, some farmer’s markets accept food assistance benefits on certain operating days. Typically, a farmer’s market will announce times and dates when SNAP payments will be accepted.

Who Is Eligible for Food Stamps? What Is a Food Stamp Household, and How Does One Apply to Be One?

As previously mentioned, food stamp qualifications are determined by each individual state. A person could qualify for food assistance programs in one state, but not another. Once again, this is because it is up to the State to determine who is eligible to receive benefits and distribute those benefits. The Federal Government then funds the benefits of those found eligible.

Generally speaking, an assistance applicant can receive benefits unless they are categorized as one of the program’s exceptions. Some examples of such exceptions include, but may not be limited to:

  • An adult who is capable, unemployed, and does not have a child, who is between the ages of 18 and 50, and has recently receive unemployment benefits;
  • Anyone who has recently violated food assistance program rules;
  • Anyone who has recently failed to comply with food assistance program rules;
  • An applicant who cut off their employment without adequate reason to do so;
  • Students who are enrolled in college on a half-time basis, who is not also working a minimum of twenty hours per week;
  • Applicants who are currently living in any sort of institution which provides meals, such as assisted living facilities;
  • An employee who is currently on strike;
  • Immigrants to the United States who are currently undocumented; and
  • Those who have United States military status.

A “food stamp household,” which is now known as a “SNAP household” are terms that would be used to describe a group of people living together, who purchase and prepare meals together. The term is used by food assistance programs to determine eligibility as well as total income, as not all applicants who live together are related by blood. In order for a household to become a “SNAP household,” at least one person from the household would need to apply and attend an in-person interview. This interview is used to verify work history, as well as later receive benefits.

It is important to note that since the COVID-19 pandemic, many states have begun to conduct eligibility interviews over the phone. Additionally, benefits under the Federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (“CARES” act) greatly expanded the amount of funding for the SNAP Food Stamp program, increasing the maximum benefits by 15% through June 2021. This means that each person that is a part of a SNAP household could see an increase of $25 per month for each individual that is a part of the household. For a family of four that means an increase in SNAP benefits in the amount of $100.

What Type of Information Does the Food Stamp Office Typically Need to See? What Is the Cut-Off to Receiving Benefits?

To reiterate, each state and each assistance program will maintain their own list of information that will be required during the benefits application process. Some programs may require extensive proof of need, while others may require a simple verification of a home or work address.

Some common examples of the types of information that food assistance programs need before disbursing benefits include, but may not be limited to:

  • Statement of all income sources for the entire household;
  • The social security numbers of all applicants who are wishing to receive benefits;
  • The immigration/immigrant status of all applicants who are wishing to receive benefits;
  • Utility bills for the applicant household;
  • Recurring medical costs for the household;
  • A summary of other benefits received, such as disability benefits, if any; and
  • Verification of a home address.

Once again, most programs determine who is eligible to receive benefits based on their income. A family may not be eligible to receive benefits if their gross income exceeds more than 130% of the established federal level.

Do I Need a Lawyer Regarding the Food Stamp Program?

Generally speaking, most food stamp program applicants will be able to apply for food assistance without the aid of an attorney. However, those who believe that they were wrongfully denied food assistance benefits should consider hiring an experienced local government lawyer.

An experienced local government attorney can help clarify your state’s specific laws and eligibility requirements regarding the SNAP program, in order to determine if you have any legal course of action. Additionally, an attorney will also be able to appeal your denial of benefits, and even represent you in court, as needed.

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