Do You Qualify for Government Food Benefits? Learn What's Available

Government Food Benefits May Help When Money Is Tight

Young woman shopping in supermarket

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Financial difficulties can happen to anyone and when you find yourself in a tight spot, you may be wondering what kind of help is available. There are numerous programs designed to offer assistance to individuals and families in need, including government food benefits. These benefits can help you keep your pantry stocked when your food budget is limited. It's helpful to know who qualifies for government food benefits and how to apply. 

Getting Help During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching financial impacts for Americans, including a spike in unemployment to a record rate of 14.7% in April 2020. If you've experienced a financial setback associated with a job loss or a reduction in household income, there are resources that can help with getting food and other financial assistance. Some of these resources offered one-time assistance, while others have been ongoing.

At the federal level, resources include:

  • Economic Impact Payments of up to $1,200 for qualifying individuals earlier in 2020 and $600 for qualifying individuals early in 2021
  • Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, which provided up to $600 in additional weekly benefits through December 26, 2020, and $300 in additional benefits through at least March 13, 2021
  • Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, which provides unemployment benefits to self-employed individuals and others who traditionally don't qualify for unemployment
  • Temporary mortgage forbearance for eligible homeowners with federally-backed mortgages through at least June 30, 2021
  • Temporary forbearance for eligible federal student loan borrowers

You may also be able to find help at the state and local levels. For example, a number of states have entered into agreements with private student loan servicers to allow for temporary forbearance of loan payments. Private student loans are not eligible for forbearance under the CARES Act

Additionally, utility companies are offering a form of coronavirus financial relief in some states by temporarily suspending disconnects, reducing bills, or waiving payment requirements for customers experiencing a financial hardship. Many states and municipalities have also imposed moratorium on evictions for non-payment of rent.  

Food Assistance Options

When you need food assistance, you have several options for getting help. Here's a closer look at how to get government food benefits and food assistance from non-government sources.

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits (SNAP)

Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Benefits (SNAP) is a federal program that provides food help to eligible households. SNAP provides a monthly benefit via an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that works like a debit card. Once your benefits are loaded to the card, you can use it to purchase food.

You can only use SNAP benefits to purchase eligible food items, which are determined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Excluded items include hot and prepared foods, alcohol, and household goods.

Even though SNAP is a federal program, you have to apply for it at the state level. Depending on where you live, you may be able to apply for SNAP online or at your local Department of Social Services office. 

Eligibility for SNAP benefits is based on:

  • Household size
  • Income
  • Financial resources, including how much money you have in the bank

The maximum monthly SNAP benefit you can receive is based on your household size. For example, the maximum monthly allotment for a family of four in 2021 is $782.

SNAP benefits are paid to you during your certification period. Once that period ends, you have to recertify your eligibility to continue receiving benefits. 

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

If you have young children at home, you may be eligible to get government food benefits through the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) program. WIC provides eligible parents with vouchers that can be used to purchase specific food items, including baby formula, baby cereal, milk, cheese, and juice. 

Similar to the SNAP program, there are specific eligibility requirements you have to meet. The criteria used to determine eligibility are:

  • Residency (you have to be a resident of the state in which you're applying for benefits)
  • Income 
  • Nutrition risk

The program is primarily designed for women who are pregnant, breastfeeding, or within six months of giving birth or having a pregnancy end. Children under 5 years old can also receive benefits. The USDA offers a prescreening tool you can use to determine if you're eligible for WIC.

While WIC is aimed at helping women, any parent or guardian who is a sole provider, including a father, grandparent, or foster parent can also apply for benefits for eligible children.

School Lunch Benefits for Children

If you have school-aged children, there are several programs that can provide them with meals, including:

Your child's school has to participate in these initiatives for kids to benefit. But if the school does have these programs in place, children from eligible households can qualify for free or reduced-price lunch and breakfast. 

Eligibility is based on household size and income. Contact your child's school to find out if these programs are available and to complete an application. 

Eligibility is automatic if:

Summer food service is available at locations around the country to all children 18 and under.

Food Assistance for Seniors

Eligible older adults can also get help with food at the state level. The Seniors Farmers' Market Nutrition Program (SFMNP) provides low-income older adults with access to locally grown foods while the Commodity Supplemental Food Program (CSFP) delivers a monthly package of food to individuals 60 and older. 

You have to meet the income and age requirements to qualify, plus live in an area that's served by either program. If you're already receiving SNAP benefits, you can contact your state SNAP office to find out whether either program is available.

Other Ways to Get Food Assistance

If you've applied for government food benefits and still need help with meals, there are other resources you can look into. 

For example, you may be able to get food locally through:

  • Food banks and food pantries
  • Churches
  • Nonprofit organizations
  • Community gardens or farm cooperatives

Organizations like Feeding America can also help you locate food help in your area when you need it most. Keep in mind that you may need to prove financial need to qualify and you may be limited as to how often you can receive food through various programs. 

The National Hunger Hotline can also help connect you to food assistance programs. Just call 1-866-348-6479.

The Bottom Line

Government food benefits can be a welcome form of help when you're experiencing financial difficulties. Researching what's available at the federal and state levels, as well as what you may find from private and nonprofit organizations in your area, can ensure that you and your family get the help you need.