Food stamps: How do they work?

I’ve had a lot of people ask me about food stamps, either because they want to know if they can get them or just because they’re curious. So I thought it might be a good idea to write a resource about food stamps, including debunking some myths and offering some advice. I only have experience with food stamps in Texas, so your experience may be different (and the procedures almost certainly will be at least a little different) in another state.


A Lone Star EBT card. It’s white and has a blue and red Lone Star logo next to a gold foil symbol. A long series of numbers in blue is written below.

Food stamps are actually called the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), so that’s the language that will be used at the food stamps office, on their customer service line, and usually by the people who work at the food stamps office. And they are precisely that: supplemental. This means that if you receive food stamps, based on your income, you will not receive enough to feed you for a month. (Unless you are literally eating only rice and beans for a month, and even that would be pushing it.) Food stamps are no longer stamps, and the money is instead loaded onto a Lone Star EBT card, which looks like a white debit/credit card. You create a pin, the money is automatically loaded each month, and you spend it like you would a debit card. Depending on your case, your money is loaded on the 1st, 2nd, or 3rd of each month. Now let’s debunk some myths.

Myth #1: There are no breadlines anymore, so people need to stop acting like hunger is a problem in the U.S. This is patently untrue. People are still hungry in the U.S. and there ARE still breadlines, they just don’t look the same. They’re spread out and less visible. They’re in front of food pantries. When I lived in Georgetown, TX, there was a line that stretched out for two blocks in front of the food pantry near our house every other Sunday. Bread lines are also at grocery stores at midnight at the beginning of the month. I’m not the only food stamp recipient who goes to the grocery store at 11:30 on the 2nd of the month (my benefits are loaded on the 3rd) and makes sure to check out after midnight. Bill Simon, the U.S. CEO of Wal-Mart, said in 2010,

And you need not go further than one of our stores on midnight at the end of the month. And it’s real interesting to watch, about 11 p.m., customers start to come in and shop, fill their grocery basket with basic items, baby formula, milk, bread, eggs, and continue to shop and mill about the store until midnight, when … government electronic benefits cards get activated and then the checkout starts and occurs. And our sales for those first few hours on the first of the month are substantially and significantly higher.

And if you really think about it, the only reason somebody gets out in the middle of the night and buys baby formula is that they need it, and they’ve been waiting for it. Otherwise, we are open 24 hours—come at 5 a.m., come at 7 a.m., come at 10 a.m. But if you are there at midnight, you are there for a reason.

So our bread lines aren’t as visible (remember that food stamps are loaded on three different dates, meaning the uptick in customers on one of those dates at midnight might not be as obvious to the casual observer), but many people are finding it difficult to eat in this country. The fact that 44,708,726 people, about 1 in every 7 Americans, are enrolled in SNAP suggests that a lot of people are facing economic hardships bad enough to result in food insecurity.

Myth #2: I know someone on food stamps who bought an x-box, plasma screen TV, new computer, etc. They can’t be THAT poor. The people who get food stamps just aren’t making a whole lot of money. In Texas, a household of 1 person cannot have an income higher than $1180 per month; a household of 2, $1594; a household of 3, $2008; and a household of 4, $2422. So if they saved up for a new TV or computer, it probably took them a long time, and it is not a sign that not-poor people are getting government benefits. Poor people are allowed to buy things, and they are allowed to have access to culture, entertainment, and leisure.

Of course, most of the time, the people who say this are so full of shit I’m surprised they can breathe. They usually mean, “I know someone on food stamps who HAS an x-box, plasma screen TV, new computer, etc.” And since most people who go on food stamps only do so temporarily, this is utterly unsurprising. Not everyone on food stamps was poor from birth, and so they may have bought these items before they lost their job, or had to take a paycut, or had a huge medical expense that ate into their savings. They may have received these items as gifts. (I have, for example, a very expensive and awesome PC computer that was bought by my grandfather when I was in school.) And some people think if you’re poor and asking for government assistance, you should sell EVERYTHING and live in a box first. That’s stupid. Poor people are allowed to have things, and they are allowed to make their own priorities.

Myth #3: People just live large on food stamp money. This is absolutely wrong. If you are unemployed and have zero income, you can still only get $200 in food stamp money a month in Texas. That is the limit for one person, and if you only eat two meals a day, it’s $3.33 per meal. It doesn’t afford you very many luxuries. On my food stamps, ice cream is an occasional HOORAY treat. So is orange juice, cheese, and any meat that isn’t ground beef, ground pork, or chicken. For families of two, the limit per month is $367; for families of three, $526; and for four, $668. The national average of SNAP benefits received by one person in the U.S. is $133.85, or $2.23 per meal, if you eat twice a day. Trust me, no one is living large off that.

Myth #4: The food stamp program is fraught with fraud. SNAP has less fraud than basically any other governmental assistance program. Payment error (over and underpayment) has declined from 9.86% in 1999 to 4.36% in 2009. Trafficking (that would be criminal fraud) rates have fallen from 4 cents on the dollar in 1993 to about 1 cent in 2006-2008.

The picture painted by the ZOMG FOOD STAMPS FRAUD zealots is one of dishonest people looking to cheat the government out of taxpayer money. In reality, most instances of overpayment are the result of mistakes made by caseworkers, data entry clerks, and administrators, not the recipients. Most cases in which overpayment is the result of the recipient are honest mistakes. (That’s why the rate of error is about 4% while the rate of fraud is 1%.)

Myth #5: People on food stamps shouldn’t be allowed to buy processed foods/candy/soda/etc. This is less a myth and more just an asshole attitude I dislike a lot. Food stamps (thankfully) will buy anything that is food or drink, except alcohol and “ready to eat foods,” like the rotisserie chickens you see at grocery stores, sandwiches, and any restaurant food. Wisely, the government decided that policing what poor people eat would take up too much time and money, so they let you decide what’s best for you and your family. And believe me, you can’t win either way. If you buy processed foods and soda, the poor-police will say, “I’m paying for your food, and you should eat healthy!” And if you buy fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables, they’ll say, “I can’t eat that well, so why should people on food stamps use my money to do so!” Which brings us to the last myth.

Myth #6: I pay for your food, so I should get a say in what you eat. For anyone who thinks this, I have two responses. One is to explain the social contract to you. We all pay taxes (even me) to provide services for the whole society. Our taxes pay for services that almost everyone uses, like roads, firefighters, the police, and public buildings like libraries. They also pay for services only some people use, like student loans and government benefits. Because we all pay, you don’t get to tell people how to use these benefits as an individual, and you don’t get to pretend that poor people are the only ones who use public services. You saying this is about as stupid as me saying, “I paid for that road you use to get to work, so I should get to have a say in what car you drive.”

My second response is to say, “You’ve personally paid for less than a penny of my $200 a month in grocery money. So I’ll be generous. You can decide what 1 cent of my purchases should be.” This is facetious, of course. I wouldn’t let an asshole decide even that little of my expenditures.


So if you make less than $1500/month, and you want help, how do you get food stamps and what can you use them for? To get food stamps, you have to apply with your local Health & Human Services Commission office. If you are a college student, you must be part-time (less than 12 hours of courses during the fall and spring semesters) to be eligible for food stamps. If you are full-time, you are not eligible.

You can apply for food stamps online, but you can also go into your local office and fill out a paper application. (To find an office, click the “Find an office” tab on that link.) If you do this, be sure to bring your last two pay stubs and that you know how much you pay each month in rent, car payments, electricity, water, and phone payments. If you have any assets, including bank accounts, you’ll want to know their worth. If anyone lives with you, you’ll need to know their personal information, like their social security number and their birthday, even if they aren’t applying with you. If you have access to a reliable internet connection at home, I suggest filling out the application online. It’s a lot easier.

Once you’ve turned in your application, you’ll have a phone appointment set up for you by the SNAP office. I’ve had some bad experiences with the phone appointment, so I’d suggest (if possible) setting up an in-person appointment via the phone number on the sheet telling you your phone appointment date. There are a lot of reasons you might not want to do this (you have kids and don’t want to cart them there, you work during the office’s working hours, you don’t have reliable transportation), but if it’s not inconvenient for you, an in-person appointment can be a better option. I think I’ve had better experiences with in-person appointments because it’s harder for the interviewer to see you as an application, rather than a person. With my interviewers on the phone, they ask questions and I answer them. It’s very formal and awkward. In person, we also joke and make small talk. It’s friendlier and more casual. If you do opt for the phone interview, be sure to answer clearly and politely, and don’t leave anything out. If you have questions, ask them. If errors occur because you don’t understand something, it’ll probably take longer for you to get your benefits.

Once you’ve completed your application, you’ll get a piece of mail asking you for verifying paperwork. In general, all you need to give them is:

  • A copy of your lease agreement/mortgage bill
  • A copy of your reported bills (phone, electricity, water, car payment)
  • A copy of your last pay stub (or last two pay stubs)
  • A copy of your bank statements, both checking and savings (I usually give the official one from the last month AND a printout of the most recent transactions and balance of my account, from my online banking site)
  • A copy of your ID (usually a driver’s license) and social security card

At the end of your interview, your interviewer will tell you what you should give to the office, so have a pen ready to write it down. You can wait until you get the mail from Health & Human Services telling you what to turn in to them, but the sooner you do this, the faster your application goes through. I suggest gathering most of this paperwork before the interview, then getting together anything extra they ask for during the interview and turning it into the office the next day. You’ll want to bring these copies in person to your local SNAP office, where you’ll receive a receipt for all of them.

You’ll wait a week to two weeks for your application to be processed, then you’ll get a letter in the mail telling you whether you are approved or denied, and for how much. If you’re approved, you’ll get your Lone Star card separately in the mail, with instructions on how to set up your PIN number and activate the card (much like any other debit card). After a week, if you haven’t gotten anything in the mail, I suggest calling the customer service number (211 in Texas) to check on the status of your application. If there’s a problem, you want to catch it early, rather than finding out after 3 weeks that you have to re-interview or turn in additional paperwork.

So now you have money! What can you spend it on? The short answer is: pretty much any food or drink for humans at any place that accepts food stamps and isn’t a restaurant. The long answer is: You won’t be able to spend it on anything considered “ready-made,” like fully cooked rotisserie chickens, sandwiches at the deli, or pre-made salads. You can’t spend it at restaurants, including fast food places. You also can’t buy pet food. But pretty much anything else is fair game: soda, meat, vegetables, frozen food, candy, cookies, baby food, cereal. You can also usually buy food at your local butcher’s, as many butcher’s are accepting food stamps these days. There’s even a trend of accepting food stamps at farmer’s markets, so you should check to see if yours does if you’re interested.


A white hand reaches into a cardboard box full of small red peppers at a university’s famer’s market. Source.

Your paperwork from Health & Human Services will tell you not to share your PIN with anyone, but places that accept food stamps but NOT debit cards will often ask you tell them your PIN number. I plan on making a business card that says my PIN on it, so that I can hand it over instead of saying the number out loud in front of other customers. This is a method I would suggest to anyone else who regularly shops at a butcher’s or farmer’s market, who frequently don’t accept debit cards.

Food stamps help millions of Americans eat, and if you’re struggling to cover your grocery bill each month, you might consider applying for SNAP. If you need additional help, research food pantry options in your area as well. (Honestly, I just google “food pantry [city, state]” to find my local food pantries.)

If you have any questions about food stamps, leave them in the comments!

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