Key Takeaways

  • Recent updates to the SNAP program mean that a healthier diet may be in better reach for you. See what foods qualify for purchase under the plan.

  • Your SNAP benefits can also help round out your meals with drinks and desserts. Learn how the USDA defines “accessory foods” and if you can buy them.

  • If you’re elderly, disabled, or houseless, you may even be able to use your SNAP benefits for certain restaurant meals.

By now, it’s hardly news that COVID-19 plunged millions of U.S. households into economic distress. Pandemic-related shutdowns, reduced work hours, job losses, and other factors contributed to increased food insecurity, both among those who already relied on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and those who needed government help for the first time. And for older adults, the pandemic’s impact on food security has been particularly pernicious. In fact, during the second half of February 2021, 26 million households reported having received SNAP benefits the previous week. That’s an increase of 10 million households over those who reported receiving benefits in all of 2017.1

That’s the bad news. The better news is that the American Rescue Plan Act empowered individual states to make it easier for low-income households to maintain or apply for SNAP benefits.2 And a permanent revision to the Thrifty Food Plan, which the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) uses to calculate benefit payments, means that healthier diets are now within reach for SNAP-eligible households.3

If you’re reading this article, you or someone you care for may fall into one of these categories. And you may be wondering, “What can I buy with SNAP benefits?”

Whether you’re new to SNAP or could use a refresher on what your benefits cover, this handy guide will help you understand what you can buy with food stamps and where you can make your purchases.

What can SNAP benefits be used for?

Because the SNAP program intends to “provide nutrition benefits to supplement the food budget of needy families so they can purchase healthy food and move towards self-sufficiency”,4 a good rule of thumb is to eliminate all non-food items, as well as food not intended for humans, from your shopping list. However: There are important nuances to what constitutes “food” and who it’s meant for.

Here’s a list of what you can and can’t buy with your SNAP electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card. Understanding our indicators:   - yes, you can use SNAP benefits.  - no, you can't use SNAP benefits.

Staple foods

Most edible items you would commonly purchase at the supermarket qualify. These include:

  • Fruits and vegetables (fresh, frozen, or canned)
  • Meat, poultry, and fish (fresh, frozen, or canned)
  • Dairy (fresh or shelf-stable)
  • Bread and cereal

It’s important to note that SNAP allows considerable latitude under these four “staple food” categories.5 For example, nut-, soy-, and oat milk are allowable dairy substitutes; and gluten-free pasta qualifies under bread and cereal. You may even buy 100% apple sauce (considered fruit), eggs (poultry), or canned ravioli with tomato sauce (vegetable).

Hot food / meals

However, you can’t use your SNAP benefits for food that’s hot at the point of sale, even if you’re in a grocery store. That’s because the program only covers “foods intended for home preparation and consumption.”6 This eliminates items such as rotisserie chicken, pre-cooked pizza slices, soup or chili from a prepared foods bar, and coffee or tea from a carafe. (Cold sandwiches, salads, and other deli items do qualify for SNAP purchase if you’ll be taking them home to eat.)

Accessory foods

Speaking of home preparation and consumption: You can buy things like spices, oils, and sweeteners with your SNAP benefits.7 You may also purchase snacks, desserts, and certain beverages to complement the meals you make. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Spices and seasonings (powdered, dried, or extracted)
  • Honey, maple syrup, cane sugar, and other natural or artificial sweeteners
  • Ketchup, mustard, and other condiments
  • Potato chips, pretzels, popcorn, and other snacks
  • Baked goods
  • Cake and brownie mixes
  • Ice cream
  • Water, soda, lemonade, iced tea, fruit and vegetable juices, and certain energy drinks (drinks that are labeled as nutritional supplements do not qualify; see Pharmacy, below, for more info).

Beer, wine, and liquor

This rule is unequivocal: You can’t buy alcohol with SNAP benefits. This is true even if it’s available for purchase in a grocery store.

Pet food

This is another “no” under SNAP guidelines. However, if there’s an animal companion in your life who might eat canned or bagged tuna, chicken, or other protein, there’s no prohibition against using your benefits to buy it and share it with your pet.

Cigarettes

All tobacco products—including cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco—are disallowed. And, although they technically do not contain tobacco, you can’t use your SNAP benefits card to buy e-cigarettes or refills, either.

Pharmacy items

Any prescription or over-the-counter drug, vitamin, or supplement won’t qualify for purchase with SNAP (Medicare or Medicaid might cover these, though; be sure to check). And be careful with your beverage selections; certain sports and energy drinks won’t meet SNAP guidelines unless they include a Nutrition Facts label. Drinks with a Supplement Facts label only do not qualify.

Personal care items

What about soap, deodorant, household cleaners, diapers, baby wipes, toothpaste, mouthwash, or makeup? Since none of these is considered food, SNAP won’t cover them.

Seeds and plants

If you have the time, space, and ability to start a small garden, you may be happy to learn that you can use your SNAP benefits to do it. Under program guidelines, you can purchase seeds and plant starts that, over time, can prove to be more economical than buying produce in the store.

If you’d like to keep chickens in your yard, however, you can’t use SNAP to purchase them or the eggs they will hatch from; the program prohibits buying live animals except in the case of shellfish, other seafood, and animals slaughtered before you get them from the store.

Where can I use my SNAP benefits card?

Now that you know what you can buy with your SNAP benefits, you might want to know where you can buy it. The USDA sets strict participation rules for retailers; in order to be SNAP-authorized, they must meet one of two basic eligibility standards relating to how much staple food they carry or how much staple food they sell.8 This means that retailers either must stock at least three different varieties of foods under each of the four staple categories—or that 50 percent or more of their gross sales come from items in one or more of the staple categories. Think “supermarkets” for the first category, and “butcher shop” or “fish market” for the second.

Many SNAP-authorized retailers include signage indicating that they accept food stamps; it’s always a good idea to look for it before filling your cart. In the meantime, here’s a quick list of places where you can and can’t use SNAP:

Grocery stores and supermarkets

Rarely will a grocery store not accept SNAP.

Convenience stores

If your corner store carries enough staple food varieties, it should qualify for SNAP purchases.

Farmers markets

Some farmers markets will even double the value of your benefits. Check with the market manager before you begin shopping to see if yours is one of them.

Specialty food shops

As long as 50 percent or more of the items sold in the store are “staple foods,” you should be able to use your SNAP benefits to buy them.

Liquor stores

Liquor stores are not SNAP-authorized under either eligibility standard.

Restaurants and fast-food joints

Generally, you won’t be able to use SNAP for hot meals prepared in a restaurant for your immediate consumption. However, some states offer the SNAP Restaurants Meal Program for elderly, disabled, and/or homeless beneficiaries. If your state is one of them, you can even get meals at “concessionary prices.”

Finally, one other important point: As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the USDA launched a SNAP online purchasing pilot in 48 U.S. states. If you live in a state that’s included in the pilot, you may use your SNAP benefits card to shop for groceries online (you can’t use SNAP to cover the cost of delivery, however). Keep tabs on the linked page for updates to this program, including a list of participating stores in your area. You can also use the USDA’s SNAP Retailer Locator to check for SNAP-authorized stores.

I’m ready. How do I apply for SNAP?

Need help understanding your SNAP eligibility and how to apply? Find all the information you need at BenefitsCheckup.org. You can use our secure, confidential screening tool to help determine whether you qualify; and our SNAP map can help you find your program’s website, online SNAP application, eligibility criteria, contact information, and more.

Sources

1. U.S. Census Bureau's "Historical Look at Unemployment, Sectors Shows Magnitude of COVID-19 Impact on Economy". Found on the internet at https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/03/putting-economic-impact-of-pandemic-in-context.html

2. USDA's "Getting Food on the Table". Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/coronavirus

3. USDA's "USDA Modernizes the Thrifty Food Plan, Updates SNAP Benefits". Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/news-item/usda-0179.21

4. USDA's "Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)". Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/supplemental-nutrition-assistance-program

5. USDA's "What Are Staple Foods?". Found on the internet at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/snap/SNAP-Staple-Foods.pdf

6. USDA's "Retailer Eligibility - Prepared Foods and Heated Foods". Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailer-eligibility-prepared-foods-and-heated-foods

7. USDA's "Accessory Foods List". Found on the internet at https://fns-prod.azureedge.net/sites/default/files/resource-files/Accessory_Foods_List.pdf

8. USDA's "Retailer Eligibility - Clarification of Criterion A and Criterion B Requirements". Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailer-eligibility-clarification-of-criterion