What Are Food Stamps and How Do I Access Them?

Millions of Americans receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, to purchase healthy food. SNAP benefits, also commonly called food stamps, act as a safety net for low-income households during personal challenges like a job loss and national economic crises like the coronavirus pandemic.

SNAP participation during the pandemic peaked at 43 million individuals in June 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Participation remains elevated at 42 million individuals in June 2021, the most recent month for which preliminary data is available.

The prevalence of food insecurity, meaning a family’s access to adequate food is limited by a lack of money and other resources, remained consistent at 10.5% from 2019 to 2020 in spite of the coronavirus pandemic. But Emily M. Broad Leib, clinical professor of law at Harvard Law School, says issues around equitable access to food assistance hurts some populations more than others.

“We’re pumping money into SNAP and school meals, and yet there’s still extremely high rates of food insecurity,” Broad Leib says. “Black and Latino families have two and three times the rates of food insecurity as white households. Families that have households with children , the food insecurity rates increased, so the overall number doesn’t really show how in certain segments there is real concern.”

What Are Food Stamps?

SNAP is a federal benefit designed to help low-income Americans supplement their grocery budgets and purchase healthy food.

Families can use food stamps to buy certain foods for the household, such as fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry, fish, dairy products, breads and cereals. Food stamps cannot be used to purchase alcoholic beverages, cigarettes or nonfood items like cleaning supplies.

If you are eligible, your state will issue your benefits each month on a plastic electronic benefits transfer card, similar to a credit or debit card. This card can only be used at authorized SNAP grocery stores and participating farmers markets.

[READ: How Much Should I Spend on Groceries?]

Am I Eligible for Food Stamps?

To be eligible for food stamps, your household must meet net and gross income limits based on a household’s size. A household of four, for example, must not have a gross income of more than $2,839 nor a net income of more than $2,184.

See this table for net and gross income limits, effective until Sept. 30, 2021.

Household size Gross monthly income Net monthly income
1 $1,383 $1,064
2 $1,868 $1,437
3 $2,353 $1,810
4 $2,839 $2,184
5 $3,324 $2,557
6 $3,809 $2,930
7 $4,295 $3,304
8 $4,780 $3,677

Income limits can vary by state, so check the United States Government Benefits website to learn more about your state’s program eligibility requirements.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for SNAP benefits, although some noncitizens may qualify. In general, college students enrolled at least half time are also not eligible for SNAP unless they meet certain exemptions.

How Do I Apply for Food Stamps?

Each state has its own SNAP application process. To apply, visit your local SNAP office or check your state agency’s website. Many states have adopted online application options to limit in-person applications during the coronavirus pandemic.

Applicants must complete an eligibility interview and provide proof of the information provided. Once your application is submitted, your state agency or local SNAP office will send you a notice regarding your eligibility. Benefits begin based on the date the application was submitted.

[Read: What Is Universal Basic Income?]

How Much Could I Receive With Food Stamps?

SNAP payments are calculated by multiplying a household’s net monthly income by 0.3 and subtracting the result from the maximum monthly allotment for that household’s size. Currently, a four-person household, for example, has a maximum monthly allotment of $782.

Households relying on food stamps will see their benefits increase on Oct. 1. The average SNAP benefit will increase by $36.24 per person, per month — excluding additional pandemic relief aid — according to the USDA.

This increase follows a USDA review of the Thrifty Food Plan, used to estimate the cost of a nutritious, practical, cost-effective diet prepared at home, as ordered by Congress in the 2018 Farm Bill. This is the plan’s first time its purchasing power has changed since it was first introduced in 1975.

“In the intervening years, SNAP benefits have not kept pace with evolving dietary guidelines, how food eating patterns have changed or the constraints of time-strapped working families, and so they have become more and more out of line with what families need to buy and prepare healthy food,” says Dorothy Rosenbaum, senior fellow and interim program area lead for food assistance at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

[Read: 8 Ways to Overcome Financial Difficulties in Retirement.]

Food Stamps During the Coronavirus Pandemic

In 2020, SNAP allotments were temporarily increased 15% , and the Pandemic Electronic Benefit Transfer was created to provide benefits to families whose children would have received free or reduced-price meals if their schools had not been closed during the coronavirus pandemic.

“It was a real call to action for policy makers and real Americans to really understand food insecurity, which isn’t usually on people’s radar,” Broad Leib says.

The 15% allotment boost is set to expire Sept. 30.

If you are hungry and in need of food assistance now, call the USDA National Hunger Hotline at 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) Monday through Friday, 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Eastern time.

More from U.S. News

How to Save Money When Grocery Shopping on a Budget

When COVID Relief Measures Expire and How to Prepare

What the New COVID Relief Package Means for Your Money

What Are Food Stamps and How Do I Access Them? originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 09/21/21: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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