Emergency COVID-19 SNAP Benefits Explained
Learn more about the USDA’s SNAP benefits extension, who qualifies for the emergency hunger-relief benefits and how to get them
Unemployment has reached record levels across much of the U.S. because of the coronavirus pandemic. According to a Pew Research survey, about 43% of adults say someone in their household has lost their job or taken a pay cut because of COVID-19. Among lower-income households, that number is 52%.
Those job losses have made it harder for many families to put food on the table. But thanks to the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the federal government authorized the use of billions of additional dollars for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Those expanded benefits, which include expanded eligibility, mean lower-income households may have more help putting food on the table during this difficult time.
These additional SNAP benefits were initially set to expire at the end of April or May, depending on when individual states began offering expanded benefits. However, the program is being extended in many states so families can keep getting the help they need.
What Is SNAP?
Formerly known as food stamps, SNAP is a federal aid program that helps lower-income households purchase food. The program is administered by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). SNAP is the largest of the department’s nutrition programs and provided assistance to more than 38 million Americans in 2019.
Even though SNAP is a federal program, SNAP benefits are distributed by individual states on Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. An EBT card works like a debit card and benefits are automatically loaded onto the card each month. The EBT card can then be used to buy groceries at authorized retailers.
What Kinds of Foods Can Be Purchased With SNAP Benefits?
A variety of different foods are eligible for purchase under SNAP.
SNAP benefits can be used to buy fruits, vegetables and dairy products as well as meat, poultry and fish. Bread, cereal, snacks and nonalcoholic beverages are also eligible. Families can even use benefits to buy seeds and plants to grow their own produce.
How Are SNAP Benefits Changing During the COVID-19 Pandemic?
Under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the USDA increased SNAP benefits by 40%. That increase amounts to $2 billion in additional funding each month.
The temporary expansion allows all SNAP-eligible households to qualify for the maximum allowable benefit. And more SNAP benefits means more households will have enough food to feed their families during the pandemic. According to the USDA, these expanded emergency benefits would provide the average five-person SNAP household with an additional $240 for food each month.
All 50 states and three territories—D.C., Guam and the Virgin Islands—were initially approved to provide SNAP’s emergency benefits for up to two months. States were given the option to provide the benefits in the months of either March and April or April and May.
While these initial benefit extensions were originally set to expire in April or May, many states are working with the USDA to provide emergency benefits beyond the initial two-month time frame. As the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities points out, the majority of states are approved to provide emergency benefits for at least three months. You can find your state’s details and whether it has extended SNAP’s emergency benefits by visiting the USDA’s website. Your state may also provide more information on its own SNAP website.
The USDA is also expanding SNAP’s Online Purchasing Pilot to more states. Thanks to the expansion, 90% of SNAP households will soon be able to use their SNAP benefits to purchase groceries online.
For an up-to-date list of states and retailers accepting online SNAP purchases, you can visit the SNAP Online Purchasing Pilot webpage.
Who’s Eligible for These Emergency SNAP Benefits?
Whether you’re a new applicant or already receive benefits, anyone eligible for SNAP is also eligible for the extended emergency benefits. And eligibility for SNAP is based on three different factors: gross monthly income, net income and assets. You can quickly check to see if you may be eligible for SNAP benefits at benefits.gov.
The Families First Coronavirus Response Act has also made it easier for people dealing with unemployment to receive SNAP benefits. Unemployed adults who don’t have a child at home are typically limited to three months of SNAP benefits. But because so many people are dealing with unemployment during this crisis, the act has temporarily suspended the three-month time limit.
How Do I Get These Emergency SNAP Benefits?
You can obtain emergency SNAP benefits or apply for SNAP benefits for the first time by contacting your local state agency.
If you already receive SNAP benefits, you don’t have to do anything in most states to receive the supplemental benefits that you might be eligible for. Those states will typically add the supplemental benefits to your EBT card automatically. Check with your state program to make sure no additional action is necessary.
The USDA has also eased SNAP’s administrative process in order to deliver more food to struggling families and to deliver that food faster. For example, households in many states can now apply for SNAP benefits by phone. Households also typically have to complete an interview before being approved for benefits. But states are now authorized to be more flexible in the interview process.
Are There Other Hunger-Relief Programs Available?
SNAP isn’t the only assistance available to help hungry families.
There are a number of other federal nutrition assistance programs that can help households afford food or even receive free meals—particularly for their children. These include programs like Pandemic EBT, the COVID-19 Nationwide Waiver and the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Program. You can read about these and other federal nutrition programs on the USDA’s website.
And federal programs aren’t the only way households can get help. Visiting your local food pantry is another way to put healthy food on the table if you’re struggling financially.
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