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The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a federal initiative designed to help low-income Americans access more food. Formerly (and still casually) known as the “food stamps” program, there is often confusion around what SNAP can be used to purchase. There are the things you’d expect, like fruits, vegetables, meat, and dairy products; but then there are also things that you may not have realized you could use SNAP buy, like gift baskets and birthday cakes.

Who qualifies for SNAP? 

SNAP is administered by the USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) using a nationwide network of local field offices, and eligibility is determined by a few factors, so check in with your state if you think you might qualify for the program. The size of a family’s benefit is based on the family’s income and a few expenses. Some changes to SNAP’s eligibility and benefits that came around during the COVID-19 pandemic are also still in place.

Under federal rules, a household’s income must generally be at or below 130% of the poverty line, though the poverty level is higher for bigger families and lower for smaller ones. The household’s net income must also be at or below the poverty line and assets must also fall below certain limits. For instance, a household that doesn’t include an elderly or disabled member must have assets of $2,500 or less, while households which do have such a member must have assets of $3,750 or less.

Undocumented immigrants are not eligible for SNAP benefits, though some noncitizens can be, and part-time college students don’t qualify, though again, there are certain exemptions.

The allotment for a household typically goes to an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card once a month. Here is a list of which day of the month that happens in each state.

What are the typical things people buy with food stamps?

According to the USDA, SNAP can buy the following sorts of items:

  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Dairy products
  • Breads and cereals
  • Snacks
  • Seeds and plants that can produce food for the household

Food stamps cannot be used for beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes, or tobacco purchases. They can’t be used for vitamins, medicines, or supplements—and that includes items with Supplemental Facts labels. Live animals, foods that are hot at the point of sale, pet food, cleaning products, and hygiene items also can’t be purchased with SNAP benefits. The purpose of the program is to provide food and nutrition assistance, though as you’ll see, that can take many forms.

Surprising things that can be bought with food stamps

You know the basics of what can and cannot be purchased with SNAP now, but there’s some wiggle room in there. You can’t buy a hot coffee at your local deli with your EBT card, but you can buy coffee you will brew at home, for instance. (The same goes for tea.)

Get familiar with the Supplemental Facts label we mentioned. Some energy drinks, like 5 Hour Energy, have one, which means you can’t buy them with SNAP. Others, like Rockstar or Red Bull, though, don’t have that label, which means you can.

Gift baskets count, too. As long as at least half of what’s inside a gift basket is edible, you can pick it up with your EBT card. The value of the non-food part—such as toys—has to account for less than 50% of the purchase price. So, a big stuffed animal that comes with a little tin of candies isn’t eligible, but a gift basket that mostly contains food is.

This same thinking goes for cakes. You can get a birthday cake with food stamps, as long as the decorations don’t make up more than 50% of the cake’s value.

While live animals are not on the list of things you can purchase with SNAP, in certain regions where people rely on hunting and fishing to feed their households, the requisite gear does qualify. Alaska has special rules allowing for higher SNAP benefits in rural areas for just this purpose.

There are notable exceptions to that rule against live animals, too: You can get shellfish, fish removed from the water, and animals that were slaughtered prior to being picked up from the store. Lobsters are fair game here.

In some places, you can use food stamps at restaurants

Alaska isn’t the only location with special regional allowances for food stamp purchases. SNAP has a Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) that allows people in participating states to use their benefits at restaurants. Participating establishments have to be authorized by FNS and must offer meals at “concessional prices.”

The goal here is to get food to vulnerable people, like those who are elderly, disabled, or without housing. Someone without a kitchen, food storage, transportation to a store, or the physical ability to prepare a meal can benefit from RMP, which is currently available in California, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland, Virginia, and a few counties in Rhode Island.

  



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