Unforeseen events on a national and personal scale can plunge families into poverty in a span of a few weeks or months. While food insecurity has been an issue across the United States for decades, the pandemic has made it even harder for some families to feed themselves.
The projected annual food insecurity rate in America—defined as a lack of consistent access to enough food for a healthy life—has increased by 4.1% for adults and 4.9% for children since 2018, according to a fall 2020 report from Feeding America.
Food stamps can help buoy families who can’t afford enough food to feed themselves, but recipients might not know how to use food stamps online. Learn how food stamps can help you and how to use them online properly.
What Are Food Stamps?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides assistance to low-income people in the form of food stamps used to purchase certain types of food. SNAP is a federal program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service, which has a network of local offices.
State agencies determine eligibility for SNAP benefits, and you can use the USDA’s state directory to find your particular state. If you apply online, you’ll need to register for an account and complete an online application. Most states rely on paper applications, and you may have the option to mail or fax in your application. Check with your state agency directly to learn more about its application process.
The maximum monthly food-stamp assistance you can get varies by where you live and how many people are in your household. The following list shows the various maximum assistance amounts for a family of four:
- Continental U.S. and Washington, D.C.: $835
- Alaska: $1,074 to $1,667
- Hawaii: $1,573
- Guam: $1,231
- U.S. Virgin Islands: $1,074
It typically takes up to 30 days to find out whether you’re eligible for SNAP benefits. However, if your household has less than $150 in monthly gross income and less than $100 in liquid assets, or if your rent, mortgage, and utilities add up to more than this amount, you could qualify for approval within seven days.
You can use food stamps to purchase the following: meat, poultry, and fish; vegetables and fruit; bread and cereal; dairy products; snack food; and seeds and plants that produce food. You can’t use food stamps to purchase tobacco, wine, beer, liquor, vitamins, prepared food, and nonfood items like cosmetics, hygiene items, and cleaning supplies.
The Dangers of Grocery Shopping During COVID-19
A steady supply of groceries is essential while hunkering in place, but walking around a grocery store can be a risk amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s because of the close-contact scenarios found in these types of environments.
One study, conducted in a Boston grocery store, found that 20% of employees tested positive for coronavirus. The study, published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, also found that 76% of the workers who tested positive were asymptomatic.
The infection works both ways: Because grocery store workers come in contact with so many different shoppers, they’re also more likely to infect shoppers. For some groups, contracting COVID-19 is significantly more dangerous.
A study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine found that there are at least 25 million Americans living in low-income households who are at higher risk of contracting COVID-19.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends ordering online or using curbside pickup as a safer option for getting groceries. However, if you use food stamps, can you take advantage of grocery delivery or drive-up options?
Where Can You Use Food Stamps Online?
According to George Birrell, CPA and founder of TaxHub, there are quite a few options for people who want to purchase groceries online.
“If you’re looking to purchase the groceries online but go into a store to collect, you can opt for collection at some Safeway, Vons, and Albertsons stores, if the specific store near you offers this option,” Birrell told The Balance.
If you’d prefer to have your groceries delivered, Walmart and Amazon allow you to use your Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card—a payment system that SNAP participants use—and opt for delivery.
In fact, Shannon Payton, a certified credit counselor at Payton Credit Services, said she often recommends food-stamp recipients use Walmart pickup.
“During the pandemic, food stamps were provided to more families to feed the little ones who are home,” Payton told The Balance. “This is a safer and effective way to shop, and not only will they load your trunk, but you can save on the bill by shopping from home—which lowers the risk of hunger shopping.”
These are just some of the companies that accept food stamps for online shopping (for either delivery or pickup):
How to Use Food Stamps for Online Grocery Shopping
The rules for using food stamps online vary by retailer. For example, when shopping on Amazon, you’ll add your SNAP EBT card, then shop for groceries, and when you check out, you’ll enter your EBT pin to pay for eligible purchases.
For Walmart pickup, you’ll order groceries online or through the Walmart grocery mobile app. During checkout, select EBT as your payment method. And when you arrive at your pickup location, the Walmart associate will use a portable card reader to swipe the EBT card.
Usually, you can also include non-SNAP items in the same order, but you’ll need to pay for them separately with a debit or credit card.
Other Ways to Get Online Shopping Assistance
There are also other ways to meet your food needs. For example, Full Cart has an emergency food assistance program that connects individuals with organizations that can deliver food to your home.
Many religious organizations have food assistance programs. Often, they allow you to complete an application online—or just show up on a designated day—and they will bring the groceries out to your vehicle. Some will even deliver groceries if you don’t have transportation.