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Food Assistance

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). SNAP, formerly known as “Food Stamps”, is a benefits program that can supplement your monthly food budget. Some states have given SNAP a different name, like “CalFresh” in California, “Food Share” in Wisconsin, or “3 Squares VT” in Vermont, but these are all the same federal SNAP program.

Sometimes referred to as “EBT” or Electronic Benefits Transfer, SNAP can be used to purchase food (as well as seeds and plants to grow food) in any grocery store or supermarket, corner store as well as participating farmers markets and community-supported agriculture (CSAs) programs that accept EBT. In 2020, SNAP was expanded to allow for online EBT purchasing with participating EBT retailers. For a list of participating retailers by state, see https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/online-purchasing-pilot. SNAP EBT online purchasing can be only used for food, not for paper goods, cleaning supplies, hygiene products, or delivery fees.

To qualify for SNAP, your income must be below a gross income threshold that varies by state and depends on your household size. Most states use a gross income threshold between 150% and 200% of the federal poverty level. Most states do not have an asset or resource test for SNAP. Emergency or “expedited” benefits are available to very low-income/no-income and migrant households who need help right away. The state is required to provide you with an EBT card and an initial amount of SNAP benefits within 7 days of application, as long as you verify your identity. You can self-declare other information (such as your income and residence). Your SNAP will not continue beyond the first benefit unless you provide all the required verifications to show your ongoing eligibility.

You apply for SNAP by filing an application with your state SNAP office—either through an online SNAP application, in person, or by mailing in a SNAP application. You can also apply through an approved SNAP outreach partner (such as a local Council on Aging or Food Bank). During the COVID-19 emergency, many states have adjusted SNAP application procedures to allow for telephonic applications. Some states may keep these practices even after the public health emergency ends. State and local SNAP offices often administer cash and medical assistance (Medicaid) benefits as well as SNAP. To find out how to apply for SNAP in your state, the application procedures in different states can be found at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/outreach.

Children who receive SNAP, or live with a child who receives SNAP, are automatically eligible for free school meals. (See School Meals below.) Your SNAP eligibility allows you to meet the income rules for WIC and may also, depending on the state, allow you to enroll in certain other benefit programs without proof of income.

Normally, the SNAP program does require that applicants have an interview with a SNAP worker, but most states will do the interview by phone unless you prefer an in-person interview. During the COVID-19 emergency, states have permission to waive the interviews if the information you provide is not open to question, and this waiver may extend into the future. Don’t delay on filing a SNAP application if you do not have all the required proofs, because SNAP benefits are paid retroactive to the date you first applied if you later are found eligible.

Sometimes, the agency improperly denies an application because of confusion about eligibility requirements or because of arithmetic mistakes. Do not take a denied application or termination of benefits as final. Consider making an appeal before the required time deadline expires. Most legal services programs provide free assistance with these appeals for eligible clients, resources permitting. Go to www.lawhelp.org for more information.

For more information, contact the SNAP Outreach partners in your state, the Food Research and Action Center www.frac.org, or at the U.S. Department of Agriculture at www.fns.usda.gov.

School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Summer Meals. All low-income school age children in public schools and most charter schools are eligible for free or reduced-price school meals. Children who receive or live with a child who receives SNAP food assistance or TANF cash benefits automatically qualify for free school meals. Children in foster care, who are homeless, or who are in migrant families also automatically qualify. In many states, children who receive Medicaid and have income below 130% of the federal poverty level are similarly automatically eligible for free meals. The family does not even need to file an application and the school should enroll the child from information the school gets from the state.

All children not getting TANF or SNAP who live in families with gross income under 130% of the federal poverty level are eligible for free school meal status and children in families between 130%–185% FPL are eligible for “reduced-price” meal status, which is a $0.40 co-pay for lunch and $0.30 co-pay for breakfasts. Families typically file a paper application for free or reduced-price meals at the start of the school year, and can also file any time during the school year if income changes (loss of a job, wage earner leaves family).

In many high-needs school districts, all students receive breakfast and lunch at no charge under the federal Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). For example, all students in New York City, Boston, and other urban areas get universal free school meals. If you live in a CEP school district, you do not need to receive SNAP or TANF or fill out an application for free or reduced-price free meals for your children. And more school districts are applying for CEP each year.

During the COVID-19 emergency, Congress authorized Pandemic EBT (P-EBT) benefits for children missing in-person teaching due to remote or hybrid learning. P-EBT benefits are just like SNAP, in that the families receive a P-EBT card to use to purchase food, or if the family gets SNAP, the P-EBT may be added to the SNAP card. Check with your local school or state education agency to find out more about P-EBT.

Low-income children who live in school districts that offer summer meals or after-school programs also qualify for these food benefits. For more information on child nutrition programs, contact your local school district, the state School Nutrition Association, or visit the Food Research and Action Center’s website at http://frac.org/programs/national-school-lunch-program or the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s School Meals website at www.fns.usda.gov/school-meals/child-nutrition-programs and their CEP website at https://www.fns.usda.gov/cn/community-eligibility-provision-status-school-districts-and-schools-state.

Women, Infants, and Children Program (WIC). If your family includes a pregnant woman or a child under five, you should inquire about assistance from the WIC program. Typically, WIC is administered by local public health departments and provides vouchers for supplemental foods important to the health of mothers and to the early development of their children. Eligibility for this program is based on family gross income and on whether the women, infants, or children in the family are at nutritional risk. If you receive SNAP, you are considered financially eligible for WIC. Public assistance offices or health departments can provide information about WIC. The National WIC Association also provides resources, including where to apply for WIC benefits based on your zip code at https://www.nwica.org/apply-for-wic and follow the link to http://signupwic.com/.

Other Food Programs. Many unions, faith-based organizations, and nonprofit community groups have community cupboards or food pantries that distribute food commodities for home preparation. Food pantries often receive food commodities from regional food banks that receive funds and food commodities through the federal Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP) as well as donations.

Faith-based organizations, homeless shelters, and other social service organizations such as the Salvation Army may also offer community meals to which families and individuals can turn. These programs can be located by contacting local church offices, United Way offices, or other social service agencies. Many food banks are affiliated with Feeding America. For more information, call 800-771-2303 or visit their website at www.feedingamerica.org.