Food stamps and SNAP: What it is, how to sign up and everything you need to know

Millions of Americans are struggling to make ends meet. Here's what you need to know about food stamps, food banks and SNAP.

Dori Zinn Contributing Writer
Dori Zinn loves helping people learn and understand money. She's been covering personal finance for a decade and her writing has appeared in Wirecutter, Credit Karma, Huffington Post and more.
Taylor Freitas Contributor
Taylor Freitas is a freelance writer and has contributed to publications including LA Weekly, Safety.com, and Hospitality Technology. She holds a B.A. in Print and Digital Journalism from the University of Southern California.
Dori Zinn
Taylor Freitas
4 min read
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With the coronavirus vaccine rollout now in full swing, US states are beginning to ease restrictions, clearing the way for more people to return to work. It's a promising sign after a difficult year of dealing with all of the physical, psychological and economic implications of COVID-19.

Despite this good news -- and the short-term financial boost of another round of stimulus checks -- millions of Americans are still struggling to pay rent and feed their families. In fact, an estimated 42 million people in the US will deal with food insecurity as a result of the crisis, according to the nonprofit Feeding America.

If you've lost your job or aren't making ends meet, you may be eligible for assistance through government programs like SNAP. Here's how it works -- and how to sign up.

What is SNAP?

SNAP is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, previously known as "food stamps." If you don't earn enough money to cover food costs for you and your family, you might qualify for monthly SNAP benefits to cover the costs of staple foods, including produce, meat, dairy, bread and cereal.

How much you receive is based on your income and how many people are in your household. The maximum monthly allotment for a family of four is $782.

To get SNAP, you'll need to meet the specific criteria first, including:

Income: SNAP measures both your gross and net income; both limits vary based on your household. For a family of four, your gross monthly income must be $2,839 or less. Your net monthly income must be no more than $2,184.

Citizenship: SNAP is available for US citizens and some residents who meet specific criteria (see the specific qualifications for the latter at the US Department of Agriculture, which administers the program). To qualify, you'll need to have lived in the US for at least five years, be receiving disability assistance or be under the age of 18. 

Work: If you're not working, you'll need to provide details that you're applying for work, not voluntarily reducing your hours or have quit your job, taking a job if offered one and participating in employment programs, if your state requires it. Children, seniors, pregnant women and those who have physical or mental health reasons are exempt.

Even if some household members aren't eligible for SNAP, states will determine the eligibility of the remaining household members that are eligible.

Read more: How to recover from a year of virtual school

How to apply for SNAP

SNAP is available at the state, not federal, level. Each state agency has its own specific instructions for applying. 

After you apply, you'll be notified within about 30 days if you're eligible to receive benefits. You might need to complete an interview and verify the information on your application, like pay stubs, for example. If you are eligible, you'll start receiving benefits based on your application date. 

If you receive benefits, you'll get an electronic benefit transfer card, which is like a debit card. Your benefits are automatically loaded onto your EBT card every month and you can use it at participating grocers and food stores. Some farmers' markets also accept EBT, so you might want to check to see if your local options have this benefit.

Read more: How to get a COVID-19 vaccine appointment

SNAP during COVID-19

With millions of Americans out of work and children staying at home without school meals -- for some children, this is the only time they eat -- more families are turning to government-assisted programs like SNAP. 

The percentage of families participating in the SNAP program increased from 6 to 17% between February and May 2020 as many households faced layoffs, school closures and other hardships. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted on March 18, eased SNAP eligibility restrictions (and added new tax benefits for employees and self-employed individuals and their families). For instance, it waived ongoing required documentation as well as the application interview. Along with that, the application process was simplified to handle the influx of needy families applying for SNAP, allowing families to receive benefits within a week of applying.

Now, over a year later, demand for SNAP remains high. In a recent survey, approximately 22 million adults -- that's roughly 11% of American adults -- said that their household didn't have enough to eat in the past seven days. To help, many states continue to use temporary SNAP flexibility rules to provide assistance to more families and simplify their administrative obligations related to the program. 

Read more: What can you do when you're vaccinated?

Other food options

If you don't qualify for SNAP or you're looking for other food programs, you might want to check out these.

  • USDA National Hunger Hotline: If you're facing a food shortage right now, you can call 1-866-3-HUNGRY (1-866-348-6479) every day any time between 4 a.m. and 7 p.m. PT (7 a.m. to 10 p.m. ET). For Spanish, you can call 1-877-8-HAMBRE. Someone can help you find food assistance right now.
  • WIC: The Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children is available for low-income women and children. If you're pregnant, breastfeeding, within six months of having a child or have a child under 5 years of age and meet the income requirements, you might qualify for WIC. Eligibility is set by individual states and you'll need to find your state agency to apply.
  • Feeding America:Feeding America has distribution centers across the country, distributing more than 4 billion meals each year via meal programs and food pantries. Find your local Feeding America food bank.
  • Community or religious organizations: Search for food donations near you to see which organizations have food available to those in need. Also search foodpantries.org.
  • 211: Call 211 wherever you are and you'll be connected to community resources that can help you with whatever your needs are, whether it's housing, medical assistance or food insecurity.

Read more: Everything you should and shouldn't do at your COVID-19 vaccine appointment