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Food Stamp Program

Frequently Asked Questions

   1.    What is the Food Stamp Program for?
   2.    Who is the Food Stamp Program for?
   3.    How do I Obtain Food Stamps?
   4.    Can you send me an application form?
   5.    Can I apply on line?
   6.    How can I find out if I might be eligible for food stamps?
   7.    How is each household's food stamp allotment determined?
   8.    What is the average benefit from the Food Stamp Program?
   9.    What foods are eligible for purchase with food stamps?
   10.  What measures are taken to prevent food stamp fraud?
   11.  What do I do if my EBT card is lost or stolen?
   12.  Can I use my EBT card in another State?
   13.  When will my Food Stamp benefits be available on my EBT card?
   14.  Can I check the balance of my EBt food Stamp account online?
   15.  I have Food Stamp paper coupons. Can I still use them to buy food?
   16.  Do I have to use all my Food Stamp benefits up in the month that I receive them,
          or will they be carried over into the next month?
   17.  What keeps unqualified people from getting food stamps?
   18.  When did the program begin?
   19.  How do I report someone I think is violating Food Stamp Program rules?
   20.  What are some characteristics of food stamp households?
   21.  Don’t some territories, such as Puerto Rico, use a different version of the Food
          Stamp Program?
   22.  How many people get food stamps, and at what cost?
   23.  Need more information?
   24.  Can't find the answer?

 

1. What is the Food Stamp Program for?

The Food Stamp Program helped put food on the table for some 10.3 million households and 23.9 million individuals each day in Fiscal Year 2004. It provides low-income households with coupons or electronic benefits they can use like cash at most grocery stores to ensure that they have access to a healthy diet. The Food Stamp Program is the cornerstone of the Federal food assistance programs, and provides crucial support to needy households and to those making the transition from welfare to work. It provided an average of $2.1 billion a month in benefits in Fiscal Year 2004.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers the Food Stamp Program at the Federal level through its Food and Nutrition Service (FNS). State agencies administer the program at State and local levels, including determination of eligibility and allotments, and distribution of benefits.

2. Who is the Food Stamp Program for?

Households must meet eligibility requirements and provide information – and verification -- about their household circumstances. U.S. citizens and some aliens who are admitted for permanent residency may qualify. The welfare reform act of 1996 ended eligibility for many legal immigrants, though Congress later restored benefits to many children and elderly immigrants, as well as some specific groups. The welfare reform act also placed time limits on benefits for unemployed, able-bodied, childless adults.

Local food stamp offices can provide information about eligibility, and USDA operates a toll-free number (800-221-5689) for people to receive information about the Food Stamp Program. Most states also have a toll free information/hotline number.

To participate in the Food Stamp Program:

  • Households may have no more than $2,000 in countable resources, such as a bank account ($3,000 if at least one person in the household is age 60 or older, or is disabled). Certain resources are not counted, such as a home and lot. Special rules are used to determine the resource value of vehicles owned by household members.

  • The gross monthly income of most households must be 130 percent or less of the Federal poverty guidelines ($1,698 per month for a family of three in most places, effective Oct. 1, 2004 through Sept. 30, 2005). Gross income includes all cash payments to the household, with a few exceptions specified in the law or the program regulations.

  • Net monthly income must be 100 percent or less of Federal poverty guidelines ($1,306 per month for a household of three in most places, effective Oct. 1, 2004 through Sept. 30, 2005). Net income is figured by adding all of a household's gross income, and then taking a number of approved deductions for child care, some shelter costs and other expenses. Households with an elderly or disabled member are subject only to the net income test.

  • Most able-bodied adult applicants must meet certain work requirements.

  • All household members must provide a Social Security number or apply for one.

Federal poverty guidelines are established by the Office of Management and Budget, and are updated annually by the Department of Health and Human Services.

3. How do I Obtain Food Stamps?

Go to the local food stamp office and fill out an application. You have the right to submit the application the same day. You can also call the office and ask them to send you an application, fill it in and send it in by mail, or in some cases, by fax. The local office will give you an appointment for an interview. One thing to keep in mind is that the Food Stamp Program prorates the first month's benefits from the day the local office gets your application, so it's to your advantage to get the application to the office quickly, even if you haven't had time to fill it out completely. Just give the local office your name, address and signature, if you can't complete the form immediately.

4.  Can you send me an application form?

No. We're sorry, but there's no way we at FNS headquarters can do that. The States are responsible for the development of their own application forms. We have a national map of state food stamp applications and local offices, as well as a State Applications page with links to each state's food stamp application. You can download an application form, or visit the State Applications and ask for one. If you download an application, you can print it out, fill it in at home and mail or take it to the local office. Some States allow you to fax the form to the local office.

5. Can I apply on line?

Currently, there are just a few States with working systems that allow applicants to apply for food stamps by computer. To check to see if your State is one of them, go to To Apply under Applicants/Recipients.

6. How can I find out if I might be eligible for food stamps?

Our new pre-screening tool will tell you whether you might be eligible for food stamps, and how much you might be eligible to receive, so you can see whether it would be worth your while to go to the local food stamp office and apply.

7. How is each household's food stamp allotment determined?

Eligible households are issued a monthly allotment of food stamps based on the Thrifty Food Plan, a low-cost model diet plan. The TFP is based on National Academy of Sciences’ Recommended Dietary Allowances, and on food choices of low-income households.

An individual household's food stamp allotment is equal to the maximum allotment for that household's size, less 30 percent of the household's net income. Households with no countable income receive the maximum allotment ($393 per month in Fiscal Year 2005 for a household of three people). Allotment levels are higher for Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, and the Virgin Islands, reflecting higher food prices in those areas.

8. What is the average benefit from the Food Stamp Program?

The average monthly benefit was about $86 per person and about $200 per household in FY 2004. See the chart below for a listing of maximum benefits available to households of various sizes.

9. What foods are eligible for purchase with food stamps?

Households CAN use food stamp benefits to buy:

  • Foods for the household to eat, such as:

  • breads and cereals;

  • fruits and vegetables;

  • meats, fish and poultry; and

  • dairy products.

  • Seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.

Households CANNOT use food stamp benefits to buy:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco

  • Any nonfood items, such as:

  • pet foods;

  • soaps, paper products; and

  • household supplies.

  • Vitamins and medicines.

  • Food that will be eaten in the store.

  • Hot foods

In some areas, restaurants can be authorized to accept food stamp benefits from qualified homeless, elderly, or disabled people in exchange for low-cost meals. Food stamp benefits cannot be exchanged for cash.

10. What measures are taken to prevent food stamp fraud?

USDA is committed to integrity in all of its nutrition assistance programs, and has put special emphasis on the Food Stamp Program because of its size and importance. However, in a program as large as the Food Stamp Program, it may be inevitable that some people will try to cheat the system.

The Department has already taken a number of steps to make it easier to catch and punish people who misuse food stamp benefits. The welfare reform act of 1996 included several provisions, originally proposed by USDA, to more closely scrutinize food retailers who apply for food stamp authorization, and to more closely monitor retailers once they are participating in the program. Retailers who violate program rules can face heavy fines, removal from the program, or jail. Individual food stamp recipients who sell their benefits can also be removed from the program.

One of the most promising developments in the fight against food stamp fraud has been the increasing use of electronic benefit transfer--EBT--to issue food stamp benefits. EBT uses a plastic card similar to a bank debit card to transfer funds from a food stamp benefits account to a retailer's account. With an EBT card, food stamp customers pay for groceries without any paper coupons changing hands. EBT eliminates paper food stamps and creates an electronic record for each transaction that makes fraud easier to detect.

Most States have now adopted EBT for food stamp issuance, and in some cases for other programs such as USDA's Special Supplemental Food Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC), and the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, the Federal block-grant program operated by the Department of Health and Human Services to provide cash assistance to needy families. As of October 2003, 48 States, the District of Columbia, Guam and Puerto Rico have on-line food stamp EBT systems. Ohio and Wyoming have off-line EBT systems that use microprocessor chip cards. Forty-nine States, the District, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands have completed state-, city-, and island-wide rollout. California is working to extend its EBT system state-wide. Several states have formed consortiums for joint EBT projects. (The welfare reform act of 1996 required all States to convert to EBT issuance for their food stamp programs by October 2002.)

11. What do I do if my EBT card is lost or stolen?

If your EBT card is lost or stolen, you should report it IMMEDIATELY by calling your State’s toll-free customer service number. A new card will be reissued to you within 2-5 days.

12. Can I use my electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card in another state?

In most cases the answer is yes. Almost all EBT cards can be used in all States. Only Ohio and Wyoming EBT cards cannot be used in other States because these States use a different type of card, called Smartcards. Ohio EBT cards will be able to be used in all states by June 2006, however. Until then, clients from other States who need to use their EBT cards in Ohio or Wyoming can do so at most of the larger chain stores that have their own equipment to process both types of EBT cards.

13. When will my Food Stamp benefits be available on my EBT card?

If you have just been certified to receive food stamp benefits, your benefits should be in your EBT account within 30 days from the date you filed your application. If you qualified for expedited benefits because your income was very low, your benefits should be in the account within 7 days from the date you filed the application. You will need to contact your caseworker to find out the exact day your benefits will be available.

Once you are certified and have received your first allotment, Food Stamp benefits will be made available to you on a monthly basis. Some states issue every client’s benefits on the first day of the month while other States issue benefits on different days of the month. The day on which your food stamp benefits become available may depend on your last name, the last digit of your social security number, or on some other factor. Please refer to the information provided to you by the local food stamp office when you became certified to receive benefits or contact your local caseworker for this information. Your state may also provide this information through its toll-free customer service number.

14. Can I check the balance of my EBT Food Stamp account online?

At this time, the following States have online access to individual EBT account information, such as balance and transaction history information. You will need your EBT card number and PIN to access your account information online.

15. I have Food Stamp paper coupons. Can I still use them to buy food?

At this time, authorized Food Stamp retailers are required to accept your Food Stamp paper coupons. If you have difficulty finding a store that will accept your coupons, please contact your caseworker who will be able to direct you to a store in your area that knows how to handle Food Stamp coupons.

Some time in the future, this policy could change and paper coupons may no longer be valid. Therefore, we encourage recipients to use any remaining paper coupons they may have now.

16. Do I have to use all my Food Stamp benefits up in the month that I receive them, or will they be carried over into the next month?

Any benefits that you have remaining in your Food Stamp EBT account at the end of the month WILL be carried over into the next month.

However, if you have not used your EBT card at all for one year, the State will begin the process of permanently removing your food stamp benefits from your EBT account. There are also some States that will begin permanently removing your benefits after 9 months of inactivity to your account. Please refer to the State training materials you received at certification to find out if your State permanently removes benefits after 9 months or after one year.

17.  What keeps unqualified people from getting food stamps?

As part of the commitment to program integrity, USDA works closely with the States to ensure that they issue their benefits correctly. State workers carefully evaluate each application to determine eligibility and the appropriate level of benefits. USDA monitors the accuracy of eligibility and benefit determinations. States that fail to meet standards for issuing their food stamp benefits correctly can be sanctioned by USDA, and those that exceed the standard for payment accuracy can be eligible for additional funding support. People who receive food stamp benefits in error must repay any benefits for which they did not qualify.

18. When did the program begin?

The Food Stamp Program traces its earliest origins back to the Food Stamp Plan, which began in 1939 to help needy families in the Depression era. The modern program began as a pilot project in 1961 and was authorized as a permanent program in 1964. Expansion of the program occurred most dramatically after 1974, when Congress required all States to offer food stamps to low-income households. The Food Stamp Act of 1977 made significant changes in program regulations, tightening eligibility requirements and administration, and removing the requirement that food stamps be purchased by participants.

Program growth has continued since then, reaching an all-time high of almost 28 million in March of 1994 before declining to about 17.2 million in the latter half of 2000. Participation has since grown to an average of 23.9 million persons in 2004. Participation generally peaks in periods of high unemployment, inflation and recession.

19. How do I report someone I think is violating Food Stamp Program rules?

Although Food Stamps is a Federal assistance program, it is the States that administer it, including the investigation and prosecution of violations of the Food Stamp Program rules. Most States maintain a fraud hotline number for the public to call to report suspected violations. The following link provides the number to call for your State to report your information. http://www.fns.usda.gov/fsp/contact_info/hotlines.htm

20. What are some characteristics of food stamp households?

Based on a study of data gathered in Fiscal Year 2003:

  • 51 percent of all participants are children (18 or younger), and 65 percent of them live in single-parent households.

  • 55 percent of food stamp households include children.

  • 9 percent of all participants are elderly (age 60 or over).

  • 79 percent of all benefits go to households with children, 16 percent go to households with disabled persons, and 7 percent go to households with elderly persons.

  • 36 percent of households with children were headed by a single parent, the overwhelming majority of whom were women.

  • The average household size is 2.3 persons.

  • The average gross monthly income per food stamp household is $640.

  • 41 percent of participants are white; 36 percent are African-American, non-Hispanic; 18 percent are Hispanic; 3 percent are Asian, 2 percent are Native American, and 1 percent are of unknown race or ethnicity.

21. Don’t some territories, such as Puerto Rico, use a different version of the Food Stamp Program?

In Puerto Rico, the Food Stamp Program was replaced in 1982 by a block grant program, called the Nutrition Assistance Program. The Commonwealth of the Northern Marianas Islands and American Samoa in the Pacific also operate under block grants. The territories now provide cash or coupons to participants, rather than food stamps or food distribution. The grant can also be used for administrative expenses related to food production and distribution.

The cost for the block grant program in Puerto Rico, in FY 2004 was $1.413 billion. For the Northern Marianas and American Samoa the block grant programs in FY 2004 cost $16.5 million.

22. How many people get food stamps, and at what cost?

The Food Stamp Program served an average of 23.9 million people each month during Fiscal Year 2004, and cost $27.2 billion for the year.
By comparison:

  • In 2000, it served 17.2 million people a month and cost $17.1 billion.

  • In 1995, it served 26.6 million people a month, and cost $24.6 billion.

  • In 1990, it served 20.1 million people and cost $15.5 billion.

  • In 1985, it served 19.9 million people and cost $11.7 billion.

  • In 1980, it served 21.1 million people and cost $9.2 billion.

  • In 1975, it served 17.1 million people and cost $4.6 billion.

  • In 1970, it served 4.3 million people and cost $577 million.

  • The program's all-time high participation was 27.97 million people in March of 1994.

The following chart lists the current gross and net income eligibility standards for the continental United States, Guam and the Virgin Islands, effective Oct. 1, 2004 to Sept. 30, 2005. Eligibility levels are slightly higher for Alaska and Hawaii.

Household size

Gross monthly income
(130 percent of poverty)

Net monthly income
(100 percent of poverty)

1

1,037

798

2

1,390

1,070

3

1,744

1,341

4

2,097

1,613

5

2,450

1,885

6

2,803

2,156

7

3,156

2,428

8

3,509

2,700

Each additional member

+354

+272

The current maximum allotment levels for the continental United States, in effect from Oct. 1, 2004 to Sept. 30, 2005 are:

Household size

Maximum allotment level

1

$152

2

  278

3

  399

4

  506

5

  601

6

  722

7

  798

8

  912

Each additional member

   +114

23. Need more information?

Local food stamp offices can provide information about eligibility, and USDA operates a toll-free number (800-221-5689) for people to receive information about the Food Stamp Program. For more information about the Food Stamp Program or any of the Food and Nutrition Service’s 15 nutrition assistance programs, contact the Food and Nutrition Service Communications Staff at 703-305-2286, or by mail at 3101 Park Center Drive, Alexandria, Virginia 22302. You can also e-mail us atFSPHQ-WEB@fns.usda.gov.

24. Can’t find the answer?

If you have questions that are not answered here or elsewhere on our web site, e-mail us at FSPHQ-WEB@fns.usda.gov. If you are interested in contacting us on technical questions about this site, please send an e-mail to webmaster@fns.usda.gov.

 

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