The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as “Food Stamps,” is the US Government’s front-line program in the fight against hunger. SNAP provides low-income families with a monthly allowance that they can only spend on food, paid through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that functions like a debit card. The program serves over 45 million beneficiaries, 70% of which are families with children. SNAP is one of the most widely used government assistance programs and is one of the first places that low-income Americans turn to when faced with unmanageable financial pressure.
The application process is relatively straightforward, but it’s still a government program, and that means standards to meet, supporting documents to produce, questions to answer, and of course lots of forms to fill out. Don’t let this frustrate you; it’s just part of dealing with the government. Remember that the people administering the program do have to deal with people who fake data to get benefits or commit other kinds of fraud. Those frauds take money away from the people who do deserve help, so we all have to deal with the process that screens the deserving beneficiaries.
The application process can seem overwhelming, especially if you’re not used to dealing with government programs. Eligibility guidelines may be difficult to understand, and some families may not understand their benefits. We’ve prepared this guide to walk you through the process, explain the confusing points, and clarify the benefits.
Key resource links are at the end of this article.
Are You Eligible?
Before applying, you’ll want to get an idea of whether you are eligible. Your case worker will make the final decision, but the criteria are public, and you can use them to get an idea of how likely you are to succeed. Our eligibility guide identifies the key eligibility criteria and gives you a base for assessing your likelihood of approval.
Eligibility does NOT guarantee approval, but understanding it will give you a good idea of whether it’s worth continuing with the application process. Now is a perfect time to review the eligibility requirements, if you haven’t already.
Use the Screening Tool
The United States Department of Agriculture provides a free screening tool to help determine benefit eligibility. The tool allows you to punch in your data and calculate the information to give you an eligibility determination.
Before getting started with the tool, you will want to gather your household information. The requirements may vary from state to state, but usually include the following:
The number of people living in your household
Household financial information (This includes mortgage and bill payments, things such as rent, utilities, etc.)
Income details (Cash on hand or in a bank account, and income payments from work, SSI payments, VA benefits, unemployment benefits, etc.)
Childcare costs (Including daycare expenses and child support payments)
Government benefits you are receiving or have received
Medical information for yourself and those residing in your household
If you do not have the documents ready, you can continue reading the next parts of the tool and come back later after you have gathered the information. When you’re ready, you can access the SNAP Screening Tool through the link at the end of this article.
Once you have determined if you are eligible, the next step is the actual application process. We will take a systematic approach to this. Make sure you complete each step.
Contact your local SNAP office.
Follow directions to apply given to you by your local SNAP office. Many offices allow individuals to complete the application online. Some offices can mail you an application, or you can pick one up in person.
Gather your household financial information, your government benefit history, your medical information and all supportive material and documentation your state requires. Be thorough here, because gathering the documents you need in advance will save a lot of time and frustration later.
Begin the application process, which will vary from state to state.
Submit your application. Once your application is complete, you can submit it online, return it in person, or mail it in. If you are in a hurry, turn in your application in person for faster processing. No matter how you apply, the SNAP office will process your application within 30 days. Benefits begin on the date you submitted your application.
Attend an interview. Once your application is processed, you will have an interview. You will be required to document and verify certain parts of your application, including:
Proof of identity
Proof of residence
The Social Security numbers of everyone on your application
Proof of income
Name, age, and relationship of all household members
Proof of immigration status for all non-citizens
Proof of child support payments (if applicable)
Proof of medical expenses for those over 60 or older
Proof of childcare expenses (if applicable)
Once all the steps are complete, wait for notification of the result.
If the process starts to seem tedious and complicated, remember that over 44 million Americans just like you have completed it and are receiving food support every month!
How to Use Your Benefits
If your SNAP office approves your application, you will receive a plastic electronic card in the mail. This card contains your benefits and can be used anywhere that accepts EBT payments. This card works like a debit card and is automatically loaded with your benefit amount each month on the date given to you by your caseworker.
Examples of items that you can purchase:
Fruits and vegetables
Meats and dairy products
Seeds and plants that may produce food for the household
Examples of items that you cannot purchase:
Vitamins or medications
It’s a simple system, and most retail outlets that handle food are familiar with the EBT cards and their uses.
Your Responsibilities As A SNAP Benefit Recipient
Once you receive benefits, you have certain responsibilities. Those who do not follow these rules may lose their benefits and even face prosecution, so it’s important to understand what those responsibilities are. The main points are pretty simple:
Be honest on your application.
Report changes in household circumstance promptly to the SNAP office.
Do not use someone else’s name or possessions to obtain benefits.
Only buy eligible items.
Do not sell, trade or give away your benefits or cards.
We can’t stress this enough: Follow the rules. No matter how easy it seems to hold information back or cheat, even in a small way, don’t do it. People do get caught, and the penalties can be severe.
How To Renew Your Benefits
Once you have begun receiving benefits, you will eventually be required to recertify. Recertification can come up anywhere between 30 days to a year after benefits start, depending on your situation. Your caseworker will tell you how often you need to recertify. It is important to remember that if there have been any changes since your last application, you will need to submit verification. You must report changes in salary, someone moving into or out of your household, changes in medical condition, and any similar event. If you’re not sure if you need to report something, ask.
SNAP Disaster Program
The Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) has also coordinated with local, state and voluntary organizations to provide the following assistance to individuals in a disaster situation:
Provide food for shelters and other mass feeding sites
Hand out food packages to households in need
Issue Disaster Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits
If you have been affected by a natural disaster, consider these benefits.
Not Eligible? Here Are Some Other Options:
If your family needs food and are ineligible for SNAP, still in the application process, or if SNAP is not providing you with enough food related items, please consider these additional services:
The Salvation Army and similar organizations with food relief programs
Free meals provided by churches or other organizations
You can also check our Charities Database which contains listings of charity organizations in your state. These charities offer help and hope to millions of Americans in need each year, regardless of economic or social background.