What is Food Stamps Used For: Understanding the Eligibility and Benefits

Most people know that food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), exist to help low-income households buy groceries. But do you know exactly what kinds of items you can purchase with food stamps? It turns out that you can use them to buy a wide variety of foods and drinks, including fresh produce, meats, dairy products, bread, cereals, and snacks. But you might be surprised to learn about some of the things that you can’t purchase with SNAP benefits.

One of the main goals of SNAP is to provide families and individuals with access to healthy, nourishing food. That’s why food stamps can be used to buy nutritious staples like fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy products. But SNAP also recognizes that people need access to a range of foods to maintain a healthy and enjoyable diet. So you can use your benefits to buy a (limited) variety of indulgences like candy, chips, and sugary drinks. There are, however, some restrictions on what you can’t purchase – for example, you can’t use SNAP to buy alcohol, tobacco products, hot foods, or non-food items like household supplies.

If you’re new to the world of SNAP benefits, you might have some questions about how the program works and what you can use your benefits for. But with a little bit of research and guidance, it’s easy to navigate the SNAP system and make the most of your benefits. Whether you’re looking to stretch your food budget, feed a large family, or simply make healthier choices at the grocery store, food stamps can be a valuable resource for millions of people across the United States. So why not learn more about SNAP today, and see how it can benefit you and your loved ones?

What are Food Stamps?

Food stamps are government-issued vouchers that are used to purchase food. The program is officially known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and is administered by the USDA. The vouchers are distributed to low-income individuals and families who are in need of assistance with providing food for themselves and their household.

The amount of money provided by the food stamp program varies depending on the recipient’s income, expenses, and household size. The vouchers can be used at approved retailers to purchase food items such as fruits, vegetables, dairy, meats, and cereals. SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase hot foods, alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, or medicines.

The goal of the food stamp program is to help families and individuals who are struggling to provide sufficient nutrition for themselves and their families. The United States Department of Agriculture states that SNAP is the first line of defense against hunger in the country, serving more than 40 million people in 2019 alone.

History of Food Stamps

Food stamps, currently known as Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a federal program that provides assistance to low-income individuals and families to purchase food. The program was initially developed in the 1930s as a way to help farmers who were struggling due to a surplus of crops and low prices. The original program provided case dividends that could be used to purchase food or other necessities.

In the 1960s, the Food Stamp Act was created as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s war on poverty. The program was designed to provide assistance to individuals who couldn’t afford to purchase nutritious food. The original program targeted specific individuals and was only available in certain areas. However, it expanded over the years to become a nationwide program.

  • In the 1970s, participation in the program increased significantly due to rising unemployment rates.
  • In the 1980s, the program underwent significant changes as part of welfare reform. The program was renamed to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards were introduced to replace paper food stamps.
  • In the 2000s, the program became more accessible to working families and seniors with low incomes.

Today, SNAP is the largest federal food assistance program in the United States, providing aid to over 42 million Americans in 2020. The program is administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and funded by Congress.

The following table shows the history and evolution of the food stamp program:

YearProgram NameNumber of Participants
1939Case DividendsN/A
1964Food Stamp ActLess than 500,000
1977Food Stamp Act AmendmentsOver 20 million
1985Food Security ActOver 20 million
1996Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (Welfare Reform)Over 25 million
2002Farm Security and Rural Investment ActOver 21 million
2014Agriculture ActOver 46 million

Despite its success, SNAP continues to face scrutiny and criticism from some policymakers who argue that the program is too expensive and prone to abuse. However, supporters of the program argue that SNAP is a critical lifeline for low-income families and individuals struggling to put food on the table.

Eligibility for Food Stamps

Food Stamps, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), is a federally-funded program that provides assistance to low-income individuals and families to help them purchase nutritious food. However, not everyone is eligible to receive Food Stamps. To apply for Food Stamps, you must meet certain eligibility requirements, which are as follows:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen or a legal immigrant with a qualified immigration status.
  • You must have a valid Social Security Number (SSN).
  • You must meet income requirements. Your household income must be at or below 130% of the federal poverty level. The amount of income varies by household size; the larger the household, the higher the income limit.
  • You must have limited resources. Your household must have resources worth $2,250 or less, such as cash in a bank account.
  • You must meet work requirements. Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) must meet certain work requirements to receive Food Stamps. They must work at least 20 hours per week, participate in a work program, or meet an exemption based on certain criteria, such as disability or caring for a dependent.

It’s essential to note that states may have additional eligibility requirements for Food Stamps, and the rules may vary from state to state. Therefore, it’s best to contact your local SNAP office to determine if you’re eligible for Food Stamps in your state.

How to Apply for Food Stamps

Applying for food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), can be daunting, but it’s a necessary process for many individuals and families. Here is a breakdown of the steps you need to take in order to apply.

  • Check your eligibility: Before you begin the application process, you will need to check if you are eligible for SNAP. Eligibility is based on factors such as income, citizenship status, and number of household members. You can check your eligibility online, by phone, or by visiting your local SNAP office.
  • Get your documents in order: Once you have confirmed your eligibility, you will need to gather certain documents to support your application. This may include proof of income, identification, and bills or other expenses. You can find a complete list of required documents on the SNAP website.
  • Fill out the application: You can apply for SNAP online, by mail, in person, or over the phone. It is important to fill out the application as thoroughly and accurately as possible. You will need to provide personal information, income details, and household information.

After submitting your application, it may take several weeks to hear back about your eligibility and benefit amount. In the meantime, you can contact your local SNAP office for more information and resources.

It’s important to note that applying for SNAP is a confidential process, and the information you provide will be kept private. Don’t let shame or stigma prevent you from accessing the assistance you and your family may need.

Benefits of Food Stamps

Food stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), are meant to help low-income individuals and families purchase nutritious food. While the program has faced criticism over the years, it has also proven to have many benefits for those who are eligible:

  • Improves food security: Studies have shown that food stamps reduce the risk of food insecurity among households. This means that families are better able to access enough food for everyone in the household, and can more easily avoid hunger.
  • Alleviates poverty: Food stamps provide a safety net to families who are living in or near poverty. By helping to ensure that household budgets can cover the cost of food, food stamps can help prevent families from falling deeper into poverty.
  • Promotes healthier eating: Food stamps can make it easier for families to afford healthy food options, like fresh fruits and vegetables, lean proteins, and whole grains. This can have a positive impact on overall health and well-being.
  • Supports local economies: When families use food stamps to purchase food, they are injecting money into local economies. This can help to support local businesses, and can have a ripple effect across the community.
  • Boosts academic performance: Children who have access to nutritious food are more likely to perform well in school. Research has shown that food insecurity can have negative effects on academic performance, while food stamps can help mitigate these effects.

Overall, food stamps play an important role in helping low-income individuals and families access the nutrition they need to thrive. While the program is not perfect, it has many benefits that make it an essential tool in the fight against hunger and poverty.

Limitations of Food Stamps

Food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), provide assistance to millions of low-income Americans to purchase food. However, the program has certain limitations that recipients should be aware of.

  • Only for Food Purchases: Food stamps cannot be used for non-food items, such as household supplies or personal care items. Recipients cannot use food stamps to buy alcohol or tobacco, pet food, vitamins, or hot foods ready for immediate consumption.
  • Income Eligibility: The eligibility criteria for food stamps are strict. Applicants must have low income and limited resources to qualify for the program. Even with eligibility, there can be a waiting period before benefits are received.
  • Benefit Amounts: The amount of benefits that a household receives depends on factors such as income, expenses, family size, and location. However, the average benefit per person per month is modest and may not be enough to cover all food costs.
  • Reporting Changes: Recipients must report changes in their income, address, and household composition in a timely manner, or risk losing benefits. Keeping track of these changes and communicating them to the relevant authorities can be a challenging task for some recipients.
  • Work Requirements: Able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) are subject to work requirements. They must be employed or participate in job training for at least 80 hours per month to receive benefits for more than three months in a 36-month period.
  • Retailer Participation: Not all retailers accept food stamps as payment. Subsequently, recipients may face challenges finding stores that accept SNAP benefits nearby.

Impact of Limitations

The limitations of food stamps can have significant implications for individuals and families who rely on the program. With limited funds and restrictions on what can be purchased, recipients must carefully plan their food purchases. They may have to give up some basic necessities or pay out of pocket for non-food items. It may also be difficult for recipients to find work that meets the requirements of the program. Furthermore, in areas where few retailers accept SNAP payments, recipients may have to go further from home to purchase food.


While the limitations of the food stamp program can be challenging, the program still serves as an important source of support for millions of Americans. As more awareness is raised about the limitations, there is potential to improve the program to make it easier for people to access food and other necessities.

Only for Food PurchasesRecipients may have to pay out of pocket for non-food items.
Income EligibilityMany low-income individuals and families may not have access to the program.
Benefit AmountsBenefit amounts may not cover all food expenses.
Reporting ChangesRecipients may face the risk of losing benefits if they fail to report changes in a timely manner or understand the requirements.
Work RequirementsIt may be challenging for some recipients to meet the requirements for work or job training.
Retailer ParticipationRecipients in some areas may have to travel far from home to buy food or may have limited options on where to use their benefits.

Overall, while there are limitations to the program, SNAP remains a crucial resource for those in need of food assistance.

Types of Foods Covered by Food Stamps

Food stamps are a critical government aid program that helps low-income households purchase food. The program has been around for over five decades and has gone through various iterations. Today, the food stamp program is known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which helps nearly 43 million people meet their nutritional needs.

When it comes to understanding what foods are covered under the program, there are certain guidelines that must be followed. For one, food stamps cannot be used to purchase hot prepared food items, like those found in restaurants and fast-food chains. Other items such as vitamins, alcohol, and cigarettes are also not eligible for purchase using SNAP benefits. However, there are still a variety of food options that are covered under SNAP, including but not limited to:

  • Beans, peas, and lentils
  • Canned fruits and vegetables
  • Dairy products, such as milk, cheese, and yogurt
  • Eggs
  • Frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Grains, such as bread, pasta, rice
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Seasonings and spices
  • Seeds and plants to grow food

It’s important to note that while these categories of food are covered, there are still restrictions and limitations on what types of items can be purchased within those categories. For example, under the meat and poultry category, SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase any hot, ready-to-eat food products from a deli counter or rotisserie.

CategoryEligible ItemsIneligible Items
Meat & PoultryFrozen or canned meat and poultryHot-prepared food from a deli counter
GrainsBagels, bread, pasta, rice, tortillasCooked or hot prepared foods (e.g. fried rice, spaghetti with meat sauce)
DairyMilk, cheese, yogurt, butter, cream cheeseIce cream, cottage cheese, cream, whipped cream, frozen yogurt

Overall, it’s important for those who utilize the SNAP program to fully understand what foods and products are eligible for purchase. This will not only ensure that their benefits are used appropriately, but will also help to promote healthy eating habits for themselves and their family.

Restrictions on Using Food Stamps

While food stamps can help provide essential nutritional assistance to struggling families, there are restrictions on what they can be used for. These restrictions are in place to ensure that food stamp benefits are used properly and serve their intended purpose. Here are some of the main limitations on using food stamps:

  • Food stamps cannot be used to purchase non-food items such as pet food, cleaning supplies, or household goods.
  • Alcoholic beverages and tobacco products cannot be purchased with food stamp benefits.
  • Hot prepared foods, such as those from a deli or restaurant, are generally not eligible for purchase with food stamps, with some exceptions—including meals for elderly or disabled individuals that meet certain criteria.
  • Food stamps cannot be used to buy hot or ready-to-eat food from grocery stores, including items like rotisserie chicken or pizzas. However, this only applies if the items are intended for immediate consumption; if they are refrigerated or packaged to be eaten later, they may be allowed for purchase.
  • Food stamps cannot be used to buy vitamins, supplements, or other non-food products.
  • If the food stamp recipient is using an EBT (Electronic Benefits Transfer) card, they cannot use cash back, withdraw money, or use the card at an ATM.
  • Food stamp benefits cannot be used to purchase food for someone else, unless it is for someone in the same household.
  • Certain luxury foods, such as caviar or lobster, are not eligible for purchase with food stamp benefits. However, there is some debate over what constitutes “luxury” foods, as there is no official list of banned items.

Foods Eligible for Purchase with Food Stamps

Despite these restrictions, food stamp benefits can still be used to purchase a wide variety of nutritious foods. Eligible food items include:

Bread and cerealsFruits and vegetablesMeat, poultry, and fishDairy products
Bread, cereal, pasta, riceFresh, canned, and frozen fruits and vegetablesBeef, pork, lamb, poultry, fish, shellfishMilk, cheese, yogurt, butter
Dry beans, peas, lentils100% fruit juice, canned fruit in natural juiceCanned meats, like tuna and chickenInfant formula and baby food
Snack foods, like chips and pretzelsCanned or dried beansNuts, nut butters, and seedsCanned and powdered milk

It’s important for food stamp recipients to carefully consider their food choices and prioritize healthy, nutritious options. By doing so, they can ensure that their food stamp benefits are being used in the most effective way possible to support their overall well-being.

Fraud Prevention for Food Stamps

As with any government program, the process for obtaining and using food stamps is subject to potential fraud and abuse. The USDA has implemented various measures to detect and prevent fraud in the food stamp program, including the following:

  • Use of electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards: Food stamps are now provided through EBT cards, which are similar to debit cards. This helps to prevent fraud by ensuring that benefits can only be used by the rightful recipient and cannot be sold or traded for cash.
  • Data matching: USDA has partnered with state agencies to conduct data matching to detect potential fraud. This involves cross-referencing food stamp records with other databases, such as employment records and tax filings, to identify discrepancies and potential fraud.
  • Program integrity reviews: USDA conducts periodic reviews of state food stamp programs to ensure compliance with regulations and identify areas that may be vulnerable to fraudulent activity.

In addition to these measures, there are some best practices that individuals can follow to prevent fraud when using food stamps:

First, always keep your EBT card safe and secure. Do not give your PIN to anyone, and do not lend your card to others or allow others to use your benefits.

Second, always purchase eligible food items with your benefits. The USDA has strict rules about what can and cannot be purchased with food stamps, and using benefits for non-eligible items is considered fraud.

Eligible ItemsNon-Eligible Items
Meat, poultry, and fishAlcohol and tobacco products
Breads and cerealsHot foods (unless disabled or elderly)
Fruits and vegetablesHousehold items (soap, cleaning supplies)
Dairy productsPet food and supplies
Seeds and plants for growing foodNon-food items (paper products, cosmetics)

Finally, be aware of any suspicious activity and report it to the appropriate authorities. This includes things like people offering to sell their benefits or exchange them for money, or stores advertising that they will buy food stamps for cash.

By following these best practices and utilizing the fraud prevention measures put in place by the USDA, we can ensure that the food stamp program is providing assistance to those who truly need it.

Impact of Food Stamps on Poverty Reduction

Food stamps, also known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), have been a critical tool in reducing poverty in the United States. Here are 10 ways that food stamps have made a measurable impact on reducing poverty:

  • Food stamps help lift millions of people out of poverty each year. In 2019, SNAP lifted 3.1 million people out of poverty, including 1.5 million children.
  • Food stamps have a significant impact on reducing child poverty. Half of all SNAP benefits go to households with children, and in 2019, SNAP kept 3.9 million children above the poverty line.
  • Households with working adults often still struggle to make ends meet. In 2019, SNAP helped 12.5 million working adults and their families have access to enough food.
  • Food stamps provide a safety net during times of economic hardship, such as in times of job loss, illness, or natural disasters. In 2020, SNAP caseloads increased by 16% due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • SNAP stimulates local economies. For every $1 in SNAP benefits, it generates $1.50-$1.80 in economic activity.
  • Food stamps have long-term benefits. Children who receive SNAP benefits have better health outcomes, higher education levels, and earn more money as adults.
  • SNAP benefits reduce food insecurity, which is linked to poor health outcomes. A 2019 study found that food insecurity was linked to 1.4 million preventable hospitalizations each year.
  • Food stamps reduce poverty but also reduce income inequality. A 2015 study found that SNAP reduced income inequality by 9% in the United States.
  • SNAP benefits are targeted to the poorest households. More than 90% of SNAP benefits go to households with incomes at or below the poverty line.
  • Food stamps provide a critical source of nutrition for millions of Americans. In 2020, SNAP provided benefits to 42 million people, including 20 million children.


Food stamps have been a crucial tool in reducing poverty and food insecurity in the United States. By providing a safety net during times of economic hardship, targeting the poorest households, and stimulating local economies, SNAP has helped millions of Americans access enough food to live healthy and productive lives.

Through its long-term benefits for children and households, food stamps have helped to break the cycle of poverty and improve the overall health and well-being of individuals and communities across the country.

What is food stamps used for?

Q: What are food stamps?
A: Food stamps, also known as SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program), are a government-funded assistance program that provides low-income individuals and families with money to purchase food.

Q: What can I buy with food stamps?
A: Food stamps can be used to purchase most food products, such as fruits, vegetables, meats, bread, cereal, and dairy products. They cannot be used to buy alcohol, cigarettes, or non-food items such as soap or household cleaners.

Q: Can I buy prepared foods with food stamps?
A: Yes, you can purchase pre-made meals such as deli sandwiches, hot pizza, and fast food with your food stamps if it is intended for immediate consumption.

Q: Can I use my food stamps at restaurants?
A: Yes, in certain cases. Some states allow food stamps to be used at participating restaurants that offer discounted meals to low-income individuals and families.

Q: How do I apply for food stamps?
A: You can apply for food stamps online, in-person at your local SNAP office, or by phone. Eligibility is based on income and household size.

Q: Can food stamps be used to purchase groceries online?
A: Yes, but only in certain areas and with participating retailers such as Amazon, Walmart and ShopRite.

Q: How much money will I get with food stamps?
A: The amount of money you receive will depend on your income and household size. The average monthly benefit is around $125-$150 per person.

Thank you for reading!

We hope this article provided you with helpful information about what food stamps can be used for. Remember, SNAP is designed to help low-income individuals and families access healthy food options. If you have any further questions or would like to apply for food stamps, visit your local SNAP office or apply online. Thanks for reading and don’t forget to check back for more helpful articles in the future!