Like many people on disability, I have had points where I applied for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program(SNAP) benefits, often referred to as food stamps.
SNAP benefits are one of those programs that often get mentioned in politics, and is a vital program to help increase food security among the most in-need populations in the country.
Rather than being part of human services, like many support programs, SNAP is run by the US Department of Agriculture. While SNAP is a national program, it’s administered on a state or county basis.
Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program – what it does
SNAP provides a monthly stipend for purchasing food products to around 40 million Americans each year.
The precise amount of the stipend varies, but generally, it averages out to under $1.50/person/meal. To feed yourself solely on SNAP income requires a lot of self-discipline and very careful thought before going to the grocery store.
SNAP does not cover any non-food expense, such as toilet paper, paper plates, napkins, or cooking equipment.
Currently, the FDA are prioritizing making farmer’s markets accept EBT cards, so please do check out if your local farmer’s market will accept EBT/SNAP cards. Farmer’s markets often provide you with fresh fruits and vegetables for a lower cost than the grocery stores and helps fight the issue of food deserts, areas where fresh fruits and vegetables are hard to find.
If they don’t, it appears that the application process is relatively straightforward – and is also accessible through the link mentioned above.
Who is eligible for SNAP?
SNAP is a needs-based program to provide money specifically for the purchase of food. Eligibility is primarily income-based. Eligibility is also determined by household, which for the purposes of this program includes all people who prepare and eat food together.
The limits are based on your income as a percentage of the poverty line, with elderly or disabled household members having a bit more leeway in terms of assets than most folks.
The program also is especially focused on children, in the sense that abled working-age adults who are not employed can only be eligible for short periods of time.
As a person with a disability you do get more allowances than the average person, so make sure that your status as a disabled person is mentioned in your application.
If your household includes parents or grandparents who also require SNAP assistance, your application would include all family members and the card would be stocked with payments for each family member.
If you are in the situation where you are living with a roommate or don’t have your own property(sleeping on somebody’s couch, as an example), you are eligible for SNAP if the people you are staying with are not – as long as you can prove that you have a separate space to store your food and don’t prepare food together. This can be as simple as a designated shelf on the fridge or in a cabinet.
While applying for SNAP has historically included one or more trips to a county social services office, the process has been improved to some extent, at least in New Jersey.
I should add to this that I’m a pretty well-educated person and one who tends to be pretty aware and keep my documentation together pretty well. The way the instructions are written can be easily confusing, especially if you don’t match their examples in some way.
Do not feel bad if the wording seems strange or you need to reread anything a few times – everything is written in this bureaucratic way that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to anybody other than the government employees who create it.
My most recent application involved an online application. They wanted details about my living situation, household composition, and details about both income and expenses – such as if I pay for utilities and the cost of rent, as well as what each member of the household earns.
They check to make sure the details make logical sense(your cost of rent can’t exceed household income, as an example), and then you have a phone intake session scheduled. The session should take under an hour, but be aware that the times they will call are a multi-hour range, and that you may receive your call before you receive notification that your appointment is scheduled.
If you miss your scheduled intake session, you need to call the main number and make an appointment. I know, since that happened to me.
I have applied for SNAP a few different times in my life – and have used it for months at a time. Currently, I’m not using SNAP even though Al and I are likely eligible(the minimum benefit this year is $15, and I suspect we’re only eligible for the minimum benefit) because I know that the benefits have been cut pretty severely over the past few years and because applying turned into a much bigger production than it should have been because Al was in a weird employment situation.
If you fit their standard expectations, it’s pretty easy. My information wasn’t a big problem – I’m on SSDI and have no additional income(I’m hoping to eventually change that with this blog, but haven’t yet). This most recent time, though, Al has been doing little bits of work for a company that technically employs him but for mini tasks up to a few hours at a time, and he can go weeks to months between assignments. So, his income isn’t your standard, predictable thing.
Proving that you aren’t earning money is a little challenging(proving a negative always is), so when we applied for SNAP, around the same time we applied for Low Income Heat and Energy Assistance Plan(LIHEAP), I gave both of them the information that he was employed but had a small and inconsistent income.
It was the better choice with LIHEAP(they processed it faster, even with a few phone conversations to try to figure out how to classify this), but the folks managing the SNAP application kept insisting that we weren’t sending them the proper proof, but wouldn’t explain what they needed in a useful way.
I eventually gave up in frustration, after several phone calls and mailing them in paperwork several times.
Starting the process also was different than I had previously experienced, as they called me to interview me before I got the letter telling me to expect their call.
I happened to be at an appointment when they called, and by the time I was able to look at my phone, they had called twice, left messages both times, and the second message was that I now needed to call and reschedule.
I was pretty annoyed about it, but honestly, all that hassle was still much less stress than the previous times I had applied, when I had to go to an office building, wait in a crowded room full of people who were also applying, and then eventually get called in to be told what paperwork I didn’t have and what I needed to get before I came back to try again.
The nightmare lines and losing the better part of the day(or worse, multiple days) can and does happen, but if you are eligible for the higher numbers, it is worth it.
In my case, I knew that applying as a household of two(Al and I) wasn’t going to get us much help from SNAP as my income from SSDI was high enough that if we received any support, it wouldn’t be much.
Mailing in proof
If you need to go in person to apply, this is a step you don’t need to worry about, but if you apply over the phone, they will then send you a request for confirming documents.
In my case, that was a copy of my SSDI eligibility letter, a bank statement, and I believe a proof that I was paying my utilities, something like that.
They listed the information to me on the phone, and so the process should have been easy.
Usually proof of income is paystubs from the previous month of work(so usually two paystubs), but with working variable hours, that wasn’t enough, so we had to write a letter explaining the situation.
The letter didn’t say exactly what they needed it to, so they demanded something else, then another person rejected that one, and after a few rounds, I just gave up because I knew I was doing all this fighting for probably $15/month or so.
If you have a more typical job history though(a predictable work schedule with hourly pay), it’s pretty easy, and if you are living off of an SSI or SSDI check, that’s also a very simple matter.
What I’m saying is that this last experience was atypical, and for the most part, the application is annoying but relatively easy if you can access a few documents
The main thing to remember is that the program is for your household, not you as an individual(unless you are a household of one), so be sure that everybody who is eligible is listed!
Electronic Benefits Transfer card
Your EBT(Electronic Benefits Transfer) card is what you use to pay for your food once you have your benefits. The card is good as long as they believe your information is current and you continue to live in the same county. Usually, the money is deposited the first few days of the month(the details vary by location), and that’s your available funds for that month.
EBT cards are accepted most grocery stores and similar locations – places where you can buy the raw ingredients to make a meal. They are not accepted at restaurants or other places that primarily sell prepared warm food.
The EBT card looks like a debit card, so when you go to the store, you may need to pay with two cards(or the card and cash), but it is simply a matter of selecting the option ‘EBT’and using your SNAP card first, and then using your own method of payment for the balance(any food over their allowance and all non-food items.
You can purchase any food item you want, so it is possible to buy yourself a treat, and it is possible to purchase organic food or any other healthier choices. The amount of money you get should be consistent though, and will not change based on your purchasing decisions.
There is a big push now to have farmer’s markets accept EBT cards, as they are often one of the most affordable suppliers of fresh fruits and vegetables.
Many farmer’s markets will accept them, and if they don’t already it’s a relatively easy thing for them to change, especially if they already accept debit cards.
I highly recommend that if you do get SNAP to try to find a farmer’s market you can access in the summer and fall to help your money stretch further and give yourself a fresher and healthier option!
Reporting income changes
If your income changes, they need to know. As with most government programs if you do not keep them up to date if your income increases, they will declare you ineligible retroactively and expect you to repay the money given as soon as possible.
This means that if in March you end up earning more money than expected, you need to report that increase and they may eventually want you to pay back some of the SNAP benefits from March.
Each state(and sometimes county) has its own particular details to these rules, but, just like Medicaid, the state does have the right to demand that you repay the money if you weren’t eligible when you received the coverage.
My suggestion is that if you think you might have earned extra in a particular month, do your best not to spend that month’s SNAP money, in anticipation of them requesting the money back. I utterly understand if that is not an option, but just be aware that they may ask for some or all of the money back at some point.
Taking care of yourself
Applying for SNAP is a form of asking for help from the government. It can feel embarrassing or like an acknowledgment of failure to apply.
However, if you are eligible, the process is generally worth it, so you have a bit more money to spend on healthy food for yourself and your family.
I have met some administrators at the SNAP location who easily made me feel(temporarily) small and incapable, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you have a similar feeling if you apply in person.
If you have the option of applying online or by phone, I strongly recommend taking it, and if you must do it in person, remember that while they are in the position of gatekeepers, they are just doing their job. It doesn’t make it right, but it is the truth.
Prepare yourself in advance for the possibility of the application being a stressful thing that doesn’t feel good, and do everything you can to feel as in control as possible.
Gather your needed paperwork and have it organized, and if you can, go without bringing your children or other dependents.
Many of the negative experiences I’ve heard about had to do with feeling humiliated by the interviewer or some aspect of the process.
If you can, set aside the day to manage the application process. No matter what, reward yourself can after completing the application.
This could be making yourself a treat, taking a hot bath, giving yourself time to read or watch your favorite show – whatever it is, recognize that you did well for yourself and your family by applying and that you deserve to feel good about getting it done.
While applying for support sounds relatively easy, it’s often an emotionally challenging thing to do, and that, itself, is tiring.
The good news is, once your application is in, you shouldn’t have a lot more to do(other than wait) unless there’s a significant change in your life.
If you are eligible for benefits, but are having a hard time applying, I have created an online course specifically to help you through the process!
Conclusion: If you need SNAP, please apply
SNAP is an important social welfare program that helps people with low incomes be able to support themselves and get the food they need.
Applying for SNAP is relatively easy but varies from state to state(with some variation on the county basis). If you need to go in in-person to apply the lines can be long and the experience can be pretty emotionally exhausting on top of the physical discomfort and potential for long waits.
If your area supports application by phone, it is often easier and less drawn out, though that will leave you responsible for mailing in the appropriate information as instructed.
If you are on SNAP, it no longer is super obvious, as your benefits are applied through an EBT card which looks nearly identical to a debit card.
You likely will need additional money on hand to cover non-food items(such as toilet paper) or any expenses beyond what your card covers. While there have been cuts to the program, it still can provide some money to offset your food-related expenses.