Guide to Food Benefit Programs for Families and Children

Money is tight for many families, and making your dollar stretch as far as possible is key when budgeting. Many people don’t realize they may be eligible for food benefit programs like WIC and SNAP. These programs help put healthy food on the table for their family. And they save money for other purchases at the same time. There are many misconceptions about food benefit programs or food stamps. Food stamp programs have a stigma. Users are often accused of abusing the system or being lazy.

This blog isn’t here to debate the rights and wrongs or the occasional abuse of food benefits programs. Instead, it provides insight into the history of these programs, clarifies common misconceptions, and is a resource for families who may benefit from them.

Free A Family Buying Groceries in a Supermarket Stock Photo

In the U.S., there are two main food benefit programs: Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) and the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps.

Both programs have income and other requirements, must be applied for through the state you live in, and can only be used to purchase approved items. Luckily, these programs have expanded over the years to decrease stigma. Amazon and Instacart allow users to use their SNAP benefits to purchase approved items. Additionally, benefits are issued on a debit card with a personal PIN so beneficiaries can shop like everyone else.

So what are the differences between the two programs, and who is eligible? Let’s take a look!

SNAP: Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

SNAP, or the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, is more commonly known by its lay name, food stamps. The original food stamp program began in 1939. The program allowed individuals on work relief to purchase orange food stamps for $1 a piece. For each $1 worth of orange stamps a person bought, they received $0.50 in blue stamps. Orange stamps could be used to buy any food; blue stamps could only buy food determined by the Department of Agriculture as surplus. This system was a way to help struggling families, farmers, and retailers who could sell surplus goods.

Food stamps remained physical paper stamps or notes until 1988, when the first EBT program began in Reading, Pennsylvania. Because there was and unfortunately still is a stigma connected to individuals who use food benefit programs, the hope was that by using an EBT card, some of the stigma would disappear.

EBT transactions also cut down food stamp fraud and make the program more secure, ensuring that only the people assigned these cards and with knowledge of the pin can use them to purchase food. Electronic transactions make it easier to identify and stop fraud. It also stopped individuals from illegally selling their food stamps. EBT is also used to distribute unemployment benefits, and TANF, Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, assists families who need help with housing, childcare, bills, or job training.

man in white shirt carrying girl in gray shirt

SNAP Eligibility

To apply for SNAP, individuals must contact their state agency. However, except Alaska and Hawaii, the income requirements are the same throughout the 48 contiguous states and Washington D.C. The figures below are from the USDA website and Current until September 30, 2023. Visit your state’s website or the USDA for the most up-to-date information.

Household Size Gross monthly income
(130 percent of poverty)
Net monthly income
(100 percent of poverty)
1 $1,473 $1,133
2 $1,984 $1,526
3 $2,495 $1,920
4 $3,007 $2,313
5 $3,518 $2,706
6 $4,029 $3,100
7 $4,541 $3,493
8 $5,052 $3,886
Each additional member +$512 +$394

The amount a family receives is based on income, family size, and other resources available. In most cases, individuals must be working, actively seeking work, not voluntarily reducing hours, quitting a job, or refusing a job offered to receive SNAP benefits.

Families can count dependent children aged 22 or younger if they live in the same home. In most cases, students 18-49 enrolled at least half-time at a higher institution are not eligible for SNAP benefits. However, some exemptions apply. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, additional student exemptions were put in place; to learn more about student eligibility, visit the student FAQ page.

WIC: Women, Infants, & Children

WIC, or Woman, Infants, & Children, is a supplemental program for pregnant, postpartum, and nursing individuals and infants up to five. The program helps individuals purchase supplemental foods, nutrition education and support, and referrals for health and assistance programs. WIC was established in 1974 and is available in all fifty states, Washington D.C., and U.S. territories.

a woman kissing a baby on the cheek

The foods authorized by the WIC program are specifically. They are designed to supplement a pregnant, nursing, or postpartum woman’s nutritional needs and the nutritional needs of infants and young children. The WIC program also provided iron-fortified formula for women who do not or cannot fully breastfeed.

Like SNAP, WIC has income and other eligibility requirements, such as an examination by a physician to determine nutritional risk. The WIC pre-screening tool helps individuals determine their eligibility status. However, the tool is not a guarantee of benefits. If you want to apply for WIC benefits, visit your state’s Department of Health website for more information.

School-age children who are no longer eligible for WIC may be able to receive benefits through the National School Lunch Program (NSLP). The NSLP offers free or reduced meal prices to children enrolled in public and private schools pre-K through high school. The program ensures children at risk for hunger have access to at least one, sometimes two (including breakfast) meals daily.

Common Misconceptions About Food Benefit Programs

Even though food benefits program aid families in need, stimulate the economy, decrease obesity and other health issues, and decreases unemployment, there are still many misconceptions about SNAP or food stamps.

  • Undocumented or illegal immigrants are NOT eligible to receive SNAP benefits. Documented, non-citizens may be eligible for SNAP if they have lived in the U.S. for at least five years. Or if they already receive disability benefits or are a child under 18.
  • Individuals can NOT use SNAP benefits to purchase alcohol, tobacco products, travel, household supplies, medication, or pet food. TANF benefits, also distributed on an EBT card, may used to purchase some essential items such as gasoline, diapers, utility bills, and some toiletries and household cleaning supplies.
  • People on SNAP benefits are often thought of as lazy or avoiding work. However, individuals out of work can only receive benefits for three months. After 3-months, they must begin working or enroll in an approved job training program. Subsequently, SNAP encourages individuals to look for work and decreases unemployment.
  • Widespread abuse of the system does not exist. Before the EBT system was standard, there was more abuse than now. Typically, that abuse consisted of people illegally selling their stamps. However, with the institution of the EBT program, abuse of the system dropped to 1% since 1993 and was at a high of 1.5% in 2014.

girl eating cereal in white ceramic bowl on table

My family was on SNAP and state health benefits for two and half years after I received my Master’s Degree because of my low teaching salary. Food benefit programs like SNAP, WIC, and the NSLP are essential tools that reduce poverty. These programs decrease unemployment and benefit individuals’ health and well-being. Whether for a few months or a few years, no child or family should go hungry or struggle due to stigma or lack of information. If you or someone you know is struggling to supply food to your family, contact your state agency and learn more.

September 27, 2023, by L. Elizabeth Forry

written by

L. Elizabeth Forry 

L. Elizabeth Forry is an Early Childhood Educator with fifteen years of classroom teaching experience. She earned a Master of Science in Early Childhood Education from The University of North Dakota and has a Bachelor of Arts in English and one in Music from Lebanon Valley College. She has taught children in Japan, Washington D.C., Chicago, and suburban Maryland. She is trained as a reading therapist, has a TEFL certification, and has done extensive work with children regarding mental health, social-emotional development, gender development. She has written curriculum for children and educators and has led training sessions for parents and educators on various topics on early childhood development. She is the mother of two boys and resides outside of Annapolis, Maryland.

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