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

Government food benefits may help when money is tight

Young woman shopping in a supermarket.

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Financial difficulties can happen to anyone, and there are numerous programs designed to offer assistance to individuals and families in need. This includes government food benefits to help keep your pantry stocked and your children fed when your budget is limited. It's helpful to know who qualifies for government food benefits and how to apply if you do.

Getting Help During COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has had far-reaching financial implications for many Americans, including a spike in unemployment to a record rate of 14.7% in April 2020. Resources are available that can help you obtain food and other financial assistance if you've experienced a financial setback associated with a job loss or a reduction in household income.

Some of these resources offer one-time assistance, while other programs have been ongoing. Those at the federal level include:

  • Economic impact payments of up to $1,200 for qualifying individuals in 2020, and $600 and $1,400 for qualifying individuals distributed in early in 2021.
  • Advance child tax credit provides up to $300 in monthly cash payments from July 2021 to Dec 2021 for each qualifying child.
  • Pandemic unemployment compensation, which provided up to $600 in additional weekly benefits through December 26, 2020, and $300 in additional benefits through September 6, 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 September 30, 2021.
  • Forbearance for eligible federal student loan borrowers through January 31, 2022.

You might also be able to find help at the state and local levels. A number of states have entered into agreements with private student loan servicers to allow for temporary forbearance of loan payments. Note, however, that private student loans are not eligible for forbearance under the CARES Act. You may be able to get help with private loans by contacting your lender or servicer.

Utility companies have offered a form of coronavirus financial relief in some states by temporarily suspending disconnections, reducing bills, or waiving payment requirements for customers experiencing financial hardship. Many states and municipalities have also imposed moratoriums on evictions for non-payment of rent.

Food Assistance Options

Here's a closer look at how to get government food benefits, as well as 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. You can use it to purchase food when your benefits have been loaded onto the card.

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.

SNAP is a federal program, but you must apply for it at the state level. You might be able to apply for SNAP online or at your local department of social services office, depending on where you live.

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 $835.

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

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

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

You must meet specific eligibility requirements similar to the SNAP program. 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 having given birth. Children under five years old can also receive benefits. The USDA offers a prescreening tool to help you determine whether you're eligible for WIC.

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

School Lunch Benefits for Children

Several programs can provide school-age children with meals, including:

Your child's school has to participate in these initiatives for your kids to benefit, but children from eligible households can qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and breakfasts if their schools have these programs in place. Eligibility is based on household size and income. Contact your child's school to find out whether these programs are available and to complete an application.

Eligibility is automatic if:

  • Your family receives SNAP benefits or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF).
  • You're taking care of foster children.
  • Your kids are enrolled in the Head Start program.

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

Food Assistance for Seniors

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

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

Other Ways to Get Food Assistance

You can look into a few other resources if you've applied for government food benefits and still need help with meals. For example, you may be able to get food locally through:

  • Food banks and food pantries
  • Religious organizations and establishments
  • 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. Call 866-348-6479.

The Bottom Line

Government food benefits can be welcome help when you're experiencing financial difficulties. Researching what's available at the federal, state, and local 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.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

How much does the government spend on food programs like SNAP?

Federal spending on food benefits programs hit a record high of $122.1 billion in 2020. That's about 1.86% of the $6.55 trillion the U.S. government spent in 2020.

How do government shutdowns affect food benefits?

You cannot apply for or receive food benefits during government shutdowns.