What Are Food Stamps and How Do I Access Them?

Millions of Americans receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program to purchase healthy food. SNAP benefits, also commonly called food stamps, act as a safety net for low-income households during personal challenges, such as losing a job or going through a national economic crisis.

SNAP participation during the pandemic peaked at 43 million individuals in June 2020, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and participation was down to 41 million in 2022.

Even though demand has dropped for SNAP, millions of Americans are still struggling with food insecurity.

If you’re one of these individuals, know you aren’t alone and there are resources available to you.

What Are Food Stamps?

“SNAP is a federally funded program that helps individuals and families that qualify as low- or no-income purchase food,” Carter Seuthe, chief executive officer of Credit Summit, says.

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

If you’re eligible, your state will issue your benefits each month on a plastic electronic benefits transfer card, similar to a credit or debit card. You can use the card only 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 its size. These income limits vary by state.

For instance, Texas currently has a maximum income limit of $2,518 per month for a household of two and $4,465 per month for a household of five.

Visit Benefits.gov 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 access them, one can apply online, in-person or by mail through the local state agency. Eligibility is based on income and household size, and benefits can be used to purchase eligible food items at authorized retailers,” Pedro Braz, co-founder of Investing in the Web, says.

To apply, visit your local SNAP office or check your state agency’s website. During the pandemic, many states adopted online applications to limit in-person appearances, and these might still be available. Exact application processes will depend on your state.

Applicants must complete an eligibility interview and provide proof of the information they provide. 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 you submitted the application.

[READ: How Colleges Are Addressing Food Insecurity.]

How Much Could I Receive in Food Stamps?

SNAP payments also vary by state, so check your agency site for more details. Using the same example of Texas, a two-person household has a maximum monthly SNAP allowance of $516 and a five-person household has an allowance of $1,116.

You might be able to increase your SNAP allowance with certain deductions as well, Seuthe says.

[READ: The Cycle of Poverty: Traps That Keep You Poor.]

“Many recipients don’t realize that there are deductions they can apply that will allow them to receive more money in their food stamps monthly allotment. There is a standard deduction, an expenses deduction, a medical expense deduction, a child support deduction, an excess shelter cost deduction and a homeless shelter deduction,” he says.

“There are also some other programs like Women, Infants, and Children and the National School Lunch Program, which can help provide access to nutritious food for eligible individuals and families,” Braz says.

These additional programs can provide relief if your SNAP benefits are not enough.

More from U.S. News

How to Get Free Money From the Government

Study: Black Adults Three Times as Likely as Whites to Face Family Food Insecurity

Should You Apply for Government Assistance?

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

Update 04/25/23: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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