What Are the Rules for Food Stamps?

••• meal image by AGITA LEIMANE from Fotolia.com

Related Articles

The federal food stamp program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and is intended to help low-income Americans feed themselves and their families. SNAP is administered by the Department of Agriculture (USDA) federally and at the state level by various state agencies. The federal government sets rules regarding eligibility, benefit amounts and distribution of SNAP benefits. Each state has its own additional rules and in some cases work requirements.

In most of the country, benefits are no longer distributed by paper but instead through a card system called Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT). A number of requirements apply to SNAP benefits. These rules determine eligibility, benefit amounts and allowable uses of benefits, and sometimes state-mandated work requirements.


Participants must be U.S. citizens, or in some cases legal residents. In most areas, gross household income cannot exceed 130% of the poverty level, as set by federal guidelines. As of January 2010, gross income for a family of four cannot exceed $2,389 per month. Net income generally cannot exceed 100% of the poverty level, or $1,838 per month for a household of four. However, some expenses may qualify for deductions against this limit, such as rent, utilities and medical costs for dependents. Maximum-income levels are adjusted for households with an elderly or disabled member.

In addition, applicants may be asked to provide information about assets such as bank accounts. In most areas, households with more than $2,000 in such assets are ineligible for benefits (or $3,000 for households with a family member who is over age 60 or disabled). However, some states, such as New York, have removed the maximum-asset level for most households.

Applying for Benefits

Applicants in most states may apply for food stamps online, using the state’s self-service benefits system, which usually serves a number of other health and human services programs, such as energy assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Alternatively, local state social services offices can accept SNAP program applications, which can be printed out online or acquired at the local office. Some states also allow application by telephone.

Use of Food Benefits

Households participating in the SNAP program may use their food stamp benefits in grocery stores to buy eligible food items, according to USDA rules. Generally, benefits can be used to purchase food products intended for human (not animal) consumption, seeds or plants used to grow food, and nonalcoholic beverages. Many other items commonly found in grocery stores may not be purchased with benefits. These include alcoholic beverages; household products such as soap, paper products and cleaning utensils; tobacco products; or any other nonfood products. In addition, with some exceptions, hot foods or foods prepared for immediate consumption cannot be purchased with food benefits.

Federal law does not allow stores to charge sales tax on food items purchased with food stamp benefits. If a combination of cash and benefits is used, only the cash portion of the purchase may be taxed.