Participation in the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — better known as SNAP and formerly known as food stamps — surged last year as the pandemic took hold. The USDA reports that 42.3 million people were receiving SNAP benefits as of April 2021. If you’re among those new to food assistance programs and unfamiliar with how they work, here’s a quick yet comprehensive list of what you can and can’t buy using SNAP benefits.
(Note: SNAP beneficiaries in many states may be seeing sharp reductions in their monthly spending allowances as pandemic relief programs are phased out. Check your local SNAP office for information on any upcoming changes.)
Related: Where You Can Order Groceries Online With SNAP
The days when food stamps were distributed in the form of physical vouchers are long gone. Nowadays SNAP benefits are loaded onto Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that work just like debit cards. EBT cards can be swiped in grocery stores or at other designated points of sale.
SNAP recipients can also use their EBT cards to order groceries online for delivery and/or pickup at a number of stores, thanks to an online purchasing pilot program. In response to increased safety concerns about in-person shopping during the pandemic, 47 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to participate in the pilot.
Many stores work with popular grocery service Instacart to fulfill orders (and shoppers paying with EBT SNAP at select retailers can get free delivery or pickup on their first three orders of $35 or more through Sept. 16). Amazon also offers grocery delivery with EBT, and covers shoppers in all participating states except Hawaii. SNAP beneficiaries are eligible for discounted Amazon Prime membership.
Government guidelines are strict: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program provides food for people in need. This means you can buy fruits and vegetables, meats, fish, poultry, dairy products, breads and cereals, baby food and formula, and non-alcoholic beverages with your EBT card. Non-food items, however, are prohibited. Among the everyday grocery items you can’t buy are cleaning supplies, paper products, and household supplies.
Related: 24 Things You Need to Know When Applying for Food Assistance Programs
Hygiene items like soaps, deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and cosmetics can’t be purchased using SNAP. Baby wipes and diapers aren’t SNAP eligible either, nor are they covered under the Women, Infants, and Children program, better known as WIC. Although advocates have long tried to implement federal programs to address diaper needs, only families living below the federal poverty level currently receive money that can be used to buy baby diapers. The National Diaper Bank Network works with manufacturers and community organizations to provide free diapers to parents in need.
Related: Where to Apply for Food Assistance in Every State
Vitamins, supplements, and medicines (over-the-counter and prescription) also cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits. Medicare and Medicaid may cover some of these costs.
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If Red Bull gives you wings, the Food and Nutrition Service is not going to ground you. Energy drinks that include nutrition facts labels qualify as “food items” and are eligible for purchase with EBT. If your energy-boosting beverage of choice carries a supplement facts label, however, it falls under the same category as “vitamins and medicines” and won’t make the cut.
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Be prepared to become a teetotaler or pay out of pocket for any drinks containing alcohol. Beer and wine from the grocery store are forbidden, as is hard liquor. Also, EBT cards cannot be used to make food purchases at liquor stores, wineries, or other shops dedicated to the sale of alcoholic beverages.
Smoking is another vice that is not supported. Cigarettes, cigars, chewing tobacco, and other tobacco products cannot be purchased with EBT. Although e-cigarettes do not contain tobacco, they are still grouped with “tobacco products” on the list of forbidden items, as are e-cig refills. Penalties for violating the prohibitions on purchasing tobacco products or alcoholic beverages with EBT can be stiff, and in some states people caught breaking the rules can be immediately disqualified from benefits.
There have been many calls to restrict the types of food that can be purchased with food assistance, particularly in light of growing concerns over obesity and diabetes among Americans. Still, while junk foods like chips, candy, snack crackers, ice cream, and soft drinks may not be particularly nutritious or healthy fare, they’re fair game for purchase with SNAP benefits.
Arguments that food assistance recipients should not be allowed “indulgences” like steaks, lobster, and pricier organic foods have likewise been shut down, as was an initiative led by the Trump administration to cut program costs and replace free-choice shopping with government-issued food boxes.
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Convenience often comes at an extra cost, and the Food and Nutrition Service doesn’t want to foot that bill. Hot foods and prepared food items meant to be consumed immediately or on the premises cannot be purchased with an EBT card. So, rotisserie chicken is a no-go, as are shrimp and seafood that has been steamed or fried, and stews, soups, and chili. Cold deli foods, including sliced lunchmeat, packaged sandwiches, salads, and sushi rolls, however, should be fine (although some beneficiaries report that sushi’s SNAP eligibility is a sticking point at some stores).
If you want to make food purchases at a gas station or convenience store, you can, but you won’t be able to buy food at your favorite coffee shop. There does seem to be some flexibility around whether you can use SNAP to purchase Starbucks items — particularly canned beverages or packaged foods — at kiosks within grocery stores or Target locations.
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Despite the general prohibitions on EBT purchase of hot food and food intended for immediate consumption, the Restaurant Meals Program makes concessions for qualifying beneficiaries in certain states. SNAP recipients who are elderly, people with disabilities who may not be able to prepare their own meals, and people who are homeless and lack a place to store food can use SNAP at select restaurants in Arizona, parts of California, Michigan, and Rhode Island. Illinois plans to go live with the service in late summer, and New York also should be joining the program this year.
The list of restaurants where you can buy food with SNAP includes fast-food establishments like Burger King, Denny’s, Domino’s Pizza, Popeye’s, El Pollo Loco, and Subway. Use the official USDA SNAP Retailer Locator to verify which eateries are active participants in your area.
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Special occasions and birthdays should be celebrated no matter your financial situation. Even if you’re paying with SNAP, you’ll be able to pick up a cake for your special event. Just know that you’ll have to avoid extravagance, since “the value of non-edible decorations [must] not exceed 50% of the purchase price of the cake.”
Not only can you buy a cake with EBT, you can also mark an occasion or a holiday with a gift basket. But, again, the value of non-food items included in these baskets cannot exceed half of their cost. (Because lawmakers have thought of everything, there’s even a stipulation that, when celebrating autumn holidays, you can buy pumpkins — but not decorative gourds.)
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EBT cardholders can use SNAP to shop at farmers markets in all 50 states. Markets must have a special license to participate in the program, however, so look for eligible markets in your area. While individual vendors may be equipped to process SNAP transactions, there’s generally a single point-of-sale terminal where users swipe EBT cards and are given tokens or paper receipts to be submitted in exchange for food items at stalls or storefronts. At some markets, SNAP users can even earn double credit for their EBT dollars, although there’s a cap on those extra bucks. Butcher shops and meat markets are also eligible for SNAP purchases.
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As the saying goes, give a man a fish and he will eat for a day; teach him to fish and you feed him for a lifetime. With the goal of promoting self-sufficiency, the USDA allows SNAP beneficiaries to purchase seeds and plants to grow food. So, you can start a garden — but not a farm: You cannot use an EBT card to buy live animals, like chickens to lay eggs or livestock for butchering. The purchase of live seafood is also prohibited (shellfish and fish removed from water are exceptions).
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The government’s rules are clear: Pet upkeep comes at owners’ expense, and pet food does not count among the eligible food that can be purchased with SNAP dollars. This has long been a point of contention, with petitions filed to amend a rule that forces many people suffering financial hardship to make the hard choice of turning beloved “family members” over to shelters. If you’re looking for assistance with your pet’s upkeep, the Humane Society’s Pets for Life program is one organization that helps struggling owners provide food and veterinary care for their pets.
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