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

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The coronavirus crisis has put millions of Americans out of work. If you’ve lost your job, are facing reduced hours or can’t work because you’re caring for loved ones amid the pandemic, there’s a chance you may need help putting food on the table.

Amidst the COVID-19 epidemic, about 26 million adults in the US are suffering from food insecurity, or a lack of access to food. And between 8 and 15 million children don’t have enough to eat right now, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

If your family is struggling or hungry, you may want to look into SNAP. Here’s what it is — and how to know whether you qualify.

Read more: Will we get a coronavirus vaccine by 2021? Everything you need to know

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 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 $646.

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 $2,790 or less. Your net monthly income must be no more than $2,146.

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 start home schooling during COVID-19: Requirements, curriculum and tips

How to apply for SNAP

SNAP is available at the state — not federal — level. Find your state’s agency to apply.

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, or EBT card, which is like a debit card. Your benefits are automatically loaded onto your card every month and you can use your card 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.

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 number of families participating in the SNAP program rose from 6% to 17% between February and May as many households faced layoffs, school closures and other hardships. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, enacted on March 18, lessened SNAP eligibility restrictions. 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 many families to receive benefits as soon as a week of applying.

But the changes might be short-lived. The CBPP notes that the USDA wants normal processing to return by September, even as many families are continuing to have trouble making ends meet. The USDA is also denying some state waiver requests, like those for student eligibility (currently limited to at least part-time students). Some state exemptions end on Aug. 31 — other states saw exemptions end back in June.

If SNAP flexibility ends, many households could see a cutoff in SNAP assistance. This can increase food insecurity, child hunger and other hardships. Prior to the COVID-19 crisis, the Trump administration had proposed cutting millions of dollars from the SNAP program.

Read more: Will we get a coronavirus vaccine by 2021? Everything you need to know

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 7 a.m. and 10 p.m. ET (4 a.m. to 7 p.m. PT). 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.
  • 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.
  • 2-1-1: Call 2-1-1 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.

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