Key Takeaways

  • The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is a remarkably efficient food assistance program characterized by low error and fraud rates. But mistakes can happen, and some bad actors do exist.

  • Discrimination, benefits trafficking, and retailer fraud are among the most common situations that warrant filing a SNAP complaint.

  • Learn what steps you should take to take to file a SNAP complaint yourself, or on someone else’s behalf.

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides vital financial benefits to millions of Americans who need a little extra help buying their groceries each month.

It’s the largest of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's (USDA) 15 nutrition initiatives1 and a remarkably efficient one at that; according to the Brookings Institute, the food assistance program enjoys low error rates and fraud is exceptionally rare.2 In fact, according to the USDA, fully 98 percent of participating SNAP households are eligible for the assistance they receive.3 Most applicants, most caseworkers, and most retailers, in other words, are well intentioned and adhere to program guidelines.

“At the same time, SNAP is a program that depends on human beings,” said Brandy Bauer, director of NCOA’s MIPPA Resource Center. “Human beings make the rules, implement the rules, administer the rules, and interpret the rules. Human beings apply for SNAP benefits for themselves or for someone under their care. Human beings shop with their SNAP benefits card and human beings accept those cards as payment. And human beings notoriously make mistakes.”

And while unusual, it’s also true that bad actors do sometimes take advantage of the program in one way or another.

That’s why, whether you currently receive SNAP assistance or are in the process of applying for it, it’s helpful to know about situations that may warrant a complaint—and what you need to do to file one on your own or someone else’s behalf. Learn about some common ones below.

SNAP Discrimination

What is SNAP discrimination?

As a USDA-administered program, SNAP maintains a strict nondiscrimination policy. This means that applicants and recipients have the right to participate in the program regardless of their race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, age, national origin, marital or familial status, disability, English proficiency, or because all or part of their income derives from public assistance.

SNAP discrimination happens when someone’s application, benefits determination, or ability to use their benefits is denied—or otherwise negatively affected—based on one or more of the above protected categories. Has this happened to you? You may be a victim of SNAP discrimination.

How do I file a SNAP discrimination complaint?

Follow these steps:

  1. Complete the USDA Program Discrimination Complaint Form. You may do this online or print out the form and fill it out by hand. You may also request a copy of the form by calling (866) 632-9992.
  2. If you filled out a paper form, mail it to:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Office of the Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights
1400 Independence Avenue, SW
Washington, D.C. 20250-9410

You may also fax it to (833) 265-1665 or email it to program.intake@usda.gov.

If you need assistance with completing the form or filing your complaint, you may call any of the telephone numbers listed on the form or contact your local SNAP agency.

SNAP Benefits Trafficking

What is SNAP benefits trafficking?

Simply put, it’s the exchange of SNAP benefits for cash. It’s a criminal offense and those who commit it can be prosecuted.

Both individuals and retailers can participate in SNAP trafficking, complicitly or not, and there are many ways to do it. These include:

  • Using a SNAP benefits (EBT) card and receiving cash back at the register.
  • Buying, selling, or stealing an EBT card.
  • Using an EBT card to purchase items that have a bottle or can deposit, and purposely dumping the contents in order to return the containers for cash.
  • Buying food or other eligible items with an EBT card and reselling those items to another person or trading them for cash at a retail outlet.

It’s important to note that improper payments occasionally happen; these aren’t considered trafficking or any other form of fraud. In partnership with state and local SNAP agencies, the USDA works to educate retailers about this issue so they may remediate it or avoid it altogether.

How do I file a SNAP benefits trafficking complaint?

The USDA updates its definition of SNAP benefits trafficking as on-the-ground strategies evolve, so first be sure to check whether your suspicion matches an activity on the most current list.

If you do suspect an individual or retailer of trafficking, contact the Office of the Inspector General (OIG) using one of the following methods:

  • Via the web
  • By phone at (800) 424-9121
  • Using TDD at (202) 690-1202
  • Via fax at (202) 690-2474
  • Through U.S. Mail:

U.S. Department of Agriculture
Office of the Inspector General
P.O. Box 23399
Washington, D.C. 20026-3399

If you wish, you may choose to file your SNAP complaint anonymously (no one will know your name) or confidentially (only OIG staff will know your name). In either instance, your decision is protected by the Whistleblower Protection Act of 1989.

Finally, when filing a SNAP benefits trafficking complaint, you should be ready to provide as many specifics as possible, including the Who, What, When, Where, and How. Find more specific guidance here.

SNAP Retailer Fraud

What is SNAP retailer fraud?

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.4 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.

The vast majority of SNAP retailers play by these rules, though fraud does happen. Compliance analysts investigate these allegations and will permanently disqualify retailers when it’s warranted.

Some SNAP retailers participate in benefits trafficking (see above). In most cases, though, retailers that commit SNAP fraud do so by submitting false application information for locations whose program authorization has previously been denied or revoked.

How do I file a SNAP retailer fraud complaint?

If you suspect that a local retailer is committing SNAP fraud, you may either:

  1. Report it to the Office of the Inspector General using one of the means listed under SNAP Benefits Trafficking, above; or
  2. Report it to your state.

Other Situations

Benefits determination errors

Most of the time, the SNAP assistance you qualify for is correct. But honest mistakes do happen, and your circumstances can change.

If you’re unhappy with the SNAP benefits you receive, you first should contact your local agency to ask for assistance. If, after doing so, you still believe your benefit amount is incorrect, you may ask for an appeals hearing.

The hearing process varies by state, but there are some common steps you can take in order to initiate one:

  1. On your SNAP verification letter (or other form you may have received describing your SNAP benefits), locate the section titled “I want to appeal” and write “I disagree with this decision.” Sign and date it and either bring it to or send it to your local SNAP office where you originally applied for benefits.
  2. Call your SNAP caseworker directly to let them know you want to file an appeal. Then, follow up with a written statement (you don’t need to use an official form; you can simply type or hand-write a letter) and either e-mail it or send it to your caseworker as soon as possible.

You should receive a notice from your state within a few weeks that includes further details about your hearing.

Many states maintain strict deadlines around the appeals process; it’s important that you ask about these and adhere to them. And remember: you have the right to ask a trusted friend, family member, social worker, or other advocate to help you file an appeal and to bring them to your hearing, too.

Caseworker issues

Most SNAP caseworkers have your best interests at heart. That said, if you feel your caseworker has mishandled your situation, treated you disrespectfully, engaged in discrimination against you, or made a significant mistake they are unwilling to fix, you have the right to recourse.

How do I file a complaint against a SNAP caseworker?

First, ask to speak to their supervisor.

If the supervisor is unable or unwilling to resolve the situation, you should then request a hearing. Once granted, an independent third party will listen to your complaint, review the facts, and work to fix the issue.

To request a hearing, you may visit, call, or email your local SNAP office.

Still learning about SNAP, the benefits you could receive, and want to find out more information?

Did you know there are many benefits programs that help older adults pay for everyday living expenses such as food, medicine, housing and utilities, transportation, and more?

Explore your eligibility for SNAP, or other programs, bye using NCOA’s handy BenefitsCheckUp.org.

Sources

1. ”USDA Announces Additional Steps to Reduce Fraud and Misuse in Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.” Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/pressrelease/2013/fns-000213.

2. The Brookings Institute. “The pros and cons of restricting SNAP purchases.” Found on the internet at https://www.brookings.edu/testimonies/pros-and-cons-of-restricting-snap-purchases/.

3. USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service’s “How FNS Fights SNAP Fraud, Waste, and Abuse.” Found on the internet at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/fraud.

4. 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.