How Food Stamps Work

People participating in SNAP don't actually use stamps anymore.
People participating in SNAP don't actually use stamps anymore.
Anderson Ross/Iconica/Getty Images

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when there was a bit of a stigma associated with being on food stamps. But we've come a long way since then. With a combination of easier access to federal food assistance programs and a strong demand for such benefits since the financial crisis of the late 2000s, participation is at an all-time high. In 2008, the Food Stamp Program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). As of late 2009, about 40 million people were enrolled in the program. That amounts to about 1 in 8 adults and 1 in 4 children in the U.S. [source: Food Research and Action Center].

To understand how SNAP benefits work, it helps to know the history of government-sponsored nutritional aid in the U.S. The first Food Stamp Program started in 1939 during the height of the Great Depression, a period of high unemployment and widespread hunger. The program was successful, but the need for food assistance in America didn't last very long. Soon after entering World War II in 1941, the U.S. began a period of booming growth and prosperity [source: Southern Illinois University]. It wasn't until 1964 that another Food Stamp Program was launched. It continues today as SNAP and reaches more people than any other federal assistance program in the country [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].


The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sets the rules for SNAP, but individual states run the program. The USDA also provides all the funding for the actual food benefits, while states are responsible for about half the cost of running the program [source: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]. The main goal of SNAP is to help low-income households buy nutritious yet low-cost food, and that's always been the case. But there are also new programs within SNAP designed to provide educational resources on nutrition and encourage participants to choose healthier foods. These programs were part of a 2008 overhaul of the program by Congress that set a new goal to address the growing problem of obesity in the U.S., especially among the poorest communities.

Qualifying for SNAP benefits depends on a number of factors, which we'll review in the next section.


Eligibility for Food Stamps

Many people think that if they have a job, even a low-paying one, they won't be eligible for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). But this is often a mistake -- millions of people who work also receive SNAP benefits. In qualifying for SNAP, your income is considered along with the cost of supplying food for your household. The key is defining your household, which can include family members and anyone who lives and eats with you most of the time [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture]. This is important, because larger households may be eligible for higher SNAP benefits.

Once you've defined your household, the next step is to determine the financial resources of each member. This includes any income from work as well as bank accounts, investment accounts and real estate other than your home. These resources are considered your total household contribution. However, there are a number of exceptions to the rules for resources and income. For example, Social Security benefits and the income from most retirement plans aren't counted as resources. Also, your monthly payments for things like child care and medical expenses may be deducted from your total household contribution. These factors can have a big impact on your eligibility, so be careful not to leave them out during the application process.


All U.S. citizens and most legal immigrants are eligible for SNAP benefits. Elderly and disabled people are also eligible and may receive higher maximum SNAP benefits. In general, most people who are homeless are eligible for food stamps. This can be tricky, though, considering the fact there's an employment requirement for receiving SNAP benefits. It states that SNAP beneficiaries must participate in work training programs, apply for work and accept suitable employment, if offered. For more on SNAP eligibility, take a look at the USDA's online pre-screening tool.

Now that you know the eligibility requirements for SNAP, let's review how the application process works.


Applying for Food Stamps

Applying for SNAP can be easy or complicated, depending on where you live. This is because individual states have different ways of running their programs. For example, each state is responsible for developing and processing its own SNAP application. Some have online applications, while others require that you do everything in person. But don't worry -- once you figure out the system in your state, the application process gets a lot easier.

The first step in the application process is to find your local SNAP office, which is probably located in a public assistance or Social Security administration building. The best way to find one is to look in your phone book (check under the heading "Food Stamps," "Social Services" or "Public Assistance"). You can also use the USDA's SNAP office locator tool or call (800) 221-5689, the USDA's toll-free number for questions about SNAP eligibility and benefits.


Keep in mind that you're entitled to submit an application on your first visit to the SNAP office, even if you have to return for an interview. This is important, since your first month's SNAP benefits will be prorated based on the day you submitted your application. For this reason, you should turn in your application as soon as possible, even if it's not complete. Your name, address and signature are all that's required to begin the process [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].

After submitting your application, you'll need to schedule a personal interview at the SNAP office. Here's a list of items you may be required to bring with you to the interview:

  • Birth certificate
  • Government-issued identification (a driver's license or state ID card, for example)
  • Names and Social Security numbers of each member of your household
  • Proof of income (recent pay stubs or your most recent tax return, if you're self-employed)
  • Documentation of any federal benefits you receive, such as Social Security
  • Bank statements and documentation of all investment or retirement accounts
  • Documentation of your rent or mortgage payment
  • Day care or child support payments, if applicable
  • Documentation of medical expenses

Now that you know how to apply for SNAP benefits, read on to find out how to use them.


Using Food Stamps

Once your application for SNAP has been approved, the next step is to receive your benefits on your electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card, which recently replaced the printed food stamp. This should happen within 30 days of the date you filed your application, or within seven days if you qualify for expedited benefits. EBT cards are loaded electronically on a monthly basis. The day on which your benefits will be transferred to your EBT card will be anytime between the 1st and 10th day of each month, depending on the first letter of your last name [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].

Keep in mind that there are certain categories of foods that you can buy with SNAP benefits, including:


  • Breads and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meats, fish and poultry
  • Dairy products

SNAP recipients may use their benefits to purchase plants and seeds for growing food. They're also eligible to attend SNAP-Ed classes to learn about cooking, nutrition and how to stretch food dollars.

There are also certain grocery items that you can't purchase with SNAP benefits, such as:

  • Tobacco products
  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Vitamins and medicines
  • Non-food items such as paper products and soaps
  • Hot foods or foods that you'd probably eat in the store

When you go through the checkout line, you'll need to swipe your EBT card and put in your personal identification number (PIN). You can set up your PIN at your local SNAP office or by using the toll-free SNAP customer service line at (800) 997-2555. Also, keep in mind that most grocery store receipts will show the balance remaining on your EBT card. This is just one of the many improvements made to SNAP since 2008.

Read on to learn about other aspects of the program and the new face of SNAP recipients.


Food Stamps and the Recession of the Late 2000s

The Food Stamp Program in the U.S. has been undergoing dramatic changes since 2008, not the least of which was a name change to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). A 2008 overhaul increased benefits, expanded eligibility and introduced the electronic benefit transfer cards [source: Food Research and Action Center]. These changes, combined with the economic downturn of the late 2000s, led to a dramatic rise in the number of people who participate in the program. There are currently about 40 million people enrolled in SNAP. By contrast, there were 29 million people enrolled in SNAP at the end of 2007 [source: U.S. Department of Agriculture].

SNAP enrollment is expected to keep growing beyond 2010. The federal budget for SNAP includes about $75 million for 2011, which is roughly double the 2008 budget. This is partly to accommodate people who are currently eligible but don't participate. But the projected increase in SNAP participation also reflects increasing rates of food hardship, which refers to the inability to meet one's nutritional needs. From 1999 to 2007, food hardship in the U.S. remained roughly stable at about 11 percent. By 2008, that figure jumped to about 15 percent. In the last quarter of 2009, 1 in 5 US households reported food hardship, which suggests that the trend is continuing.


In March 2010, the USDA announced plans to award grants of up to $5 million for programs that improve access to SNAP. This should begin to fill the gap between those who are eligible and those who are receiving benefits. If you think you may be eligible for SNAP, keep in mind that the application process can be a bit frustrating. If you're turned down, be sure to find out why and correct any problems with your application immediately. Using SNAP benefits can be a great way to help get through hard financial times. Just remember to be prepared for your eligibility interview, be aware of the rules of participation and make the most of your SNAP benefits once you receive them.

Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • Food Research and Action Center. "Food Hardship: A Closer Look at Hunger." January 2010. (June 26, 2010)
  • Food Research and Action Center. "Food Stamp Participation Program Data." (June 24, 2010)
  • Food Research and Action Center. "Hunger and Obesity." July 2006. (June 24, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Food Stamp Program Overview." Jan. 28, 2004. (June 25, 2010)
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "Promoting Healthy Eating and Physical Activity for a Healthier Nation." (June 26, 2010)
  • United State Department of Agriculture. "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program." (June 24, 2010)
  • United State Department of Agriculture. "USDA Announces Efforts to Increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Participation." March 25, 2010. (June 24, 2010)