Understanding SNAP Benefits and EBT Cards


SNAP in New York helps eligible low-income families and individuals by providing food stamps to purchase healthy food. However, many first-time beneficiaries do not know much about the program or how the benefits are dispensed. Continue below to read more about SNAP benefits and the evolution of food stamps in New York

The Original Food Stamps

When the Food Stamp Program (FSP) was first introduced, benefits were provided to low-income individuals and families through a booklet. The booklet had paper food stamps that looked somewhat like bills, but were smaller, colored and perforated – to be easily torn from the booklet. There was no way to hide the fact that an individual was using food stamps to pay for groceries.

The EBT Card

In 2002, SNAP did away with the food stamp booklet. Now the program is distributed through an Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. The EBT card acts like a debit card for the purpose of paying for groceries. It keeps track of the balance still available for purchases. The card may be used by any household member, regardless of whether his or her name or photo is on it. The Personal Identification Number (PIN) required to use the EBT card acts as the electronic signature for a household.

The Photo EBT Card

The EBT card will have a photo ID of the head of the household unless he or she is:

  • Age 60 or above.
  • Under 19 years of age.
  • Blind or disabled.
  • A victim of domestic violence.
  • A caregiver who is helping someone to purchase food with SNAP.
  • A caregiver for children who receive SNAP even though the caregiver does not.
  • A person with a sincere religious objection to a photo.

How to Use the EBT Card

While it is unusual, some grocery stores do not accept SNAP EBT payments. The United States Drug Administration provides easy access to a list of retailers who accept SNAP. Note that when using food stamps, there is no need to separate the food items from non-food items. Once the groceries are rung up, the cashier will provide the purchase total. Simply run the EBT card through the Point of Sale (POS) terminal and enter the PIN.  The amount of groceries that qualify for SNAP will be deducted from the card. At this point, the cashier will provide the amount still owed, which will then need to be purchased through another form of payment.

SNAP Beneficiary Rights

Although some SNAP beneficiaries must have a photo ID on the EBT card, those who are exempt do not. Anyone who is a member of the household that is receiving SNAP may use the SNAP EBT card to pay for eligible food items. Food retailers may not refuse to let individuals use EBT cards for failure to provide a photo ID. In fact, they cannot even ask to see the photo EBT card unless they require every single debit card user to do the same.

Using SNAP Benefits

The SNAP EBT card may be used to purchase eligible foods for the household. Plants and seeds for growing food for the household may also be purchased.

Foods and items that are not eligible for SNAP include:

  • Medicines
  • Foods that are ready-to-eat on the premises
  • Vitamins
  • Decorated cakes in which the decorations make up over 50 percent of the purchase price
  • Alcoholic beverages including beer, wine and wine coolers
  • Tobacco products
  • Any nonfood items (soaps, toothpaste, household supplies, paper products, etc.)
  • Pet food
  • Live animals unless for food consumption (live shellfish are an exception)
  • Gift baskets containing both food and non-food items inside

Since the Food and Nutrition Act of 2008 considers any food for home consumption to be eligible, SNAP beneficiaries can purchase food luxury items, like steak, and junk food like soda and candy bars.

Suggested grocery items to purchase with SNAP include:

  • Breads and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fresh meats, including fish and poultry
  • Dairy products like eggs, milk, yogurt and cheese
  • Nut butters and fruit spreads

The intent of SNAP is to provide nutritious foods for low-income households. When purchasing foods, look to healthier choices and select ingredients for preparing a family meal rather than quick, prepackaged food. One last note is that many beneficiaries of SNAP do not realize that they can still use coupons when purchasing groceries. It’s a simple way to stretch those SNAP benefits just a little further.