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How To Apply For Food Stamps

A recent New York Times article spotlighted how 28 million Americans may be receiving food stamps [3], the highest level since the start of the program in the 1960s, and I thought that, if eligible, it would be helpful to provide an understandable resource for folks so they knew how to apply. The USDA has a Food Stamp Program [4] page but it’s not as clear about the application process.

Some statistics: the average monthly benefit was $86 per person and $200 per household in 2004. In 2005, the average gross monthly income per food stamp household was $648, so you get a good sense of who is eligible and who isn’t. To get a sense of what that means, if you were to extrapolate a per hour figure given full 52 week employment, $648 a month equates to $3.74 an hour if you work a 2080 hour year.

Determine Eligibility

The first step is to determine if you are eligible through the use of the FNS Food Stamp Program Eligibility Tool [5], which is strangely linked to an IP address. One word of advice about the tool, some states have special rules so the tool might say you’re not eligible but you might be eligible in your state. If the tool says you’re eligible, you’re in the clear. If not, contact your local food stamp office.

When you use the tool, it may send you to a state calculator or state food stamp website. For Maryland, it sent me to the Department of Human Resources [6] homepage where I could access the Food Stamps eligibility tool [7] (it’s a screening tool for all of the social services, including cash, medical, and temporary assistance). So, if you are re-routed to another tool, it’s best to go to your state tool to get the most accurate information.

If Eligible, Apply!

Since the tool is pretty quick, it’s best to check eligibility before you apply, though they say you can apply immediately. In Maryland, the application is estimated to take between twenty and forty-five minutes and is identical to applying in person. You might be wondering if you should apply for your state program or for the national program, it’s the same technically. The federal eligibility tool might have routed you to a state eligibility tool or it might have handled things itself, either way you need to apply at a state or county office. Each state will have its own form so you will need to find your local food stamp program office via their locator [8]. After you find your office, it wouldn’t hurt to give them a call to clarify. It’s always tricky finding out how your local office, despite being an annex of a larger program, handles things; you’ll want to follow what the office says.

Some states will allow you to apply online [9], they are: Delaware, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Maryland, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin.

Electronic Benefits Transfer Card

If you are certified to receive food stamp benefits, you’ll get an Electronic Benefits Transfer card (EBT card), a PIN, and instructions on how you can use it. You use it like a debit card and you can buy food and plants/seeds to grow food, and you can use it in any state, not just your own. You cannot use it to buy non-food items, alcohol, tobacco, vitamins, medicine, food to be eaten in the store, and hot foods. Some states still use paper coupons, though those are being phased out. If you lose your EBD card, call your state’s customer service number [10] and they’ll reissue you one in 2-5 days.

If you have any more questions, the Food Stamp Program FAQ [11] is quite comprehensive.