The Facts About Food Stamps

But for the SNAP program, one in five Mohave County residents would go hungry

Photo by JC Amberlyn.

Contrary to popular belief, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, otherwise known as food stamps, is more about helping people simply survive rather than leech off the government.

There are many myths about who is eligible for SNAP and what can be purchased with the benefits. According to the Arizona Department of Economic Security, as of January, SNAP benefits were issued to 38,454 eligible persons - 24,354 adults and 14,100 children - residing in 19,670 households in Mohave County. That’s nearly 20 percent of the county’s 200,000 population. The economic safety net might be the difference between feeding a family with taxpayer assistance or turning to crime to put food on the table.

According to the department, research shows poor diets contribute to serious health problems in adults, impaired brain development in children. Healthy food can lead to better school performance for children and better health outcomes for everyone.

The information for this report was culled from the DES website with the assistance of spokeswoman Tasya Peterson.

Myths and Facts

SNAP is not the same as welfare. The program is designed to help low-income people add nutritious food to their diets.

Items that may be bought with SNAP benefits include food products for human consumption, vegetable seeds, food-producing plants, infant formula and items used in the preparation or preservation of food, such as spices and herbs, pectin, lard and shortening.

SNAP benefits cannot be used to buy alcoholic beverages and tobacco products or non-food items such as soap, paper products, cleaning supplies, vitamins and minerals (in any form), medicine or hot foods and prepared meals. The exception is the Restaurant Meals Program.

Fast Food, Junk Food and Non-Food Purchases

“Cash Assistance benefits are placed on the EBT card and can be used for non-food transactions and cash withdrawals. However, SNAP benefits cannot be utilized in that manner,” said DES spokeswoman Connie Weber in an email. “They can only be used at SNAP retailers for food items (not cigarettes, alcohol, etc). If a client receives both benefits the funds are kept separate, and the rules above apply.”

That might lead to confusion at the checkout line when someone is buying a loaf of bread and a pack of cigarettes at the same time.

The United States Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service sets guidelines on what eligible items may be purchased with SNAP benefits. SNAP transactions are only made with an authorized retailer and only for items specifically allowed to be purchased with SNAP benefits.

The Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 defines eligible food as any food or food product for home consumption. Seemingly non-nutritious items such as soft drinks, candy and potato chips are eligible food items, as are seafood (including live animals such as lobsters or shellfish), steak and bakery cakes. Energy drinks that have a nutrition facts label qualify as eligible.

According to the USDA website, any change to the definition of food would require action by Congress, which has considered placing limits on the types of food that could be purchased with program benefits several times. However, it was concluded that designating foods as luxury or non-nutritious would be administratively costly and burdensome.

Employment Status

Unemployment is not a requirement to receive benefits. People working at low-wage jobs can get SNAP. The DES website states that in May 2015, 35 percent of more than 438,000 families receiving SNAP were working.

The USDA establishes eligibility requirements for the program. Eligibility is based on the household’s resources, income and other requirements, such as residence, citizenship or qualified non-citizen status, and cooperation with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Employment & Training program.

The benefits are not permanent. Renewal applications must be completed, with most after six months and some, primarily regarding mothers with young children, extended out for two years.

Illegal Immigrants

Another big misconception is that illegal immigrants can get SNAP benefits.

SNAP benefits are only issued for otherwise eligible individuals who are either a United States citizen or a noncitizen who is both legally residing in the United States and who meets the federal definition of “Qualified Alien” (requirements are listed in federal SNAP regulations at 7 CFR 273.4 – Citizenship and alien status). DES obtains verification of the legal immigration status of all noncitizens for whom SNAP is requested, from the federal Department of Homeland Security’s Citizenship and Immigration Services.

For more information on SNAP benefits, go to the DES website at https://des.az.gov, or visit the Kingman DES office at 519 Beale St. #155.