Formerly known as food stamps, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the most important anti-hunger initiative in America. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), SNAP provided food security to about 41.5 million people in 2021, with an average benefit of $218.14 per person.
Recipients use Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards to receive funds and make purchases, and they can use those cards to buy a whole lot more than just standard groceries. Here’s a look at some of the more unusual things that SNAP will pay for.
Energy Drinks — Some, at Least
You can use SNAP funds to buy energy drinks, but only if they meet the USDA’s strict standards. If the energy drink has a “nutritional facts” label, it makes the cut, according to New York SNAP EBT. If it has a “supplemental facts” label, it’s considered a supplement and cannot be purchased with EBT. That means Red Bull, Rockstar and Starbucks Double Shot make the grade, but 5 Hour Energy, Bang Shot and Tweaker do not.
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Coffee and Tea — the Kind You Make Yourself
You can use SNAP to buy packaged coffee — not to mention creamer — and that includes Keurig-style K-cups. You cannot, however, buy coffee that’s ready to drink. If you’re thinking that you’ll make your own coffee at home and just switch to tea when you’re out, that won’t work either. Tea, too, is limited to packaged and unbrewed because the USDA doesn’t allow SNAP funds to be used to buy any hot beverages.
Hunting and Fishing Gear — But You Have to Live Way, Way Out There
Even if you live in a rural area and kill what you eat, you can’t just swipe your EBT card to pick up a new fiberglass rod at Bass Pro Shops — but hunting and fishing gear is SNAP-eligible for a very specific and very tiny population. According to the USDA, some residents in the most remote parts of Alaska rely almost exclusively on hunting and fishing to feed their households because of the extreme difficulty involved with buying food at stores.
The Alaska Department of Health and Social Services gives qualifying households special identification cards. They can’t buy guns and ammo, but they can buy things such as nets, rods, harpoons, lines and knives.
Restaurant Meals — for Certain People in Certain Places
You can’t use SNAP to pay for dine-in restaurant meals — unless you qualify for the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) and live in a state that participates in it. RMP serves vulnerable populations like the elderly, people experiencing homelessness and the disabled.
Participating restaurants must offer meals at “concessional prices” to qualifying diners.
While it’s not as limited as Alaska’s subsistence hunting program, very few states participate in RMP. It’s available all over California, Arizona, Michigan, Maryland and Virginia, as well as in select counties in Rhode Island.
Seeds and Plants
The USDA allows SNAP recipients to buy edible plants like basil or food-producing plants like tomato plants with their EBT cards, as well as seeds for growing their own food. The USDA says you can grow $25 worth of produce for every dollar spent on seeds and fertilizer, yet Modern Farmer says this important inclusion is one of the least known parts of the whole SNAP program.
You can use your EBT card to get seeds and plants at any SNAP-approved retailer, including farmer’s markets.
Gift Baskets — Depending on What’s Inside
The USDA allows you to spend SNAP funds on gift baskets and similar purchases as long as at least half of what’s inside is edible. Even if they contain eligible edibles, nonfood items such as toys, stockings and tins don’t count if “the value of the non-food part of the item clearly accounts for more than 50% of the purchase price,” according to the USDA. The agency gives the example of a stuffed holiday bear that comes with a small package of chocolate: That won’t count. A gift basket containing mostly meat and cheese, however, would be acceptable.
Like tobacco, alcohol, vitamins and medicine, live animals are on the USDA’s list of items that you can’t buy with SNAP benefits. There are, however, a few rare exceptions, including shellfish, “fish removed from the water” and “animals slaughtered prior to pick-up from the store.”
That means that, while you can’t use your EBT card to buy a puppy from a pet store, you can use SNAP to buy a lobster to bring home to meet its unfortunate fate on your kitchen stovetop.
Snacks of All Kinds
Most people probably know that SNAP recipients can use their EBT cards to buy household grocery staples such as meat, milk, eggs, vegetables and bread, but what’s not as well known is the long list of snacks that are on the USDA’s approved list. It includes everything from marshmallows and marzipan to pudding and popsicles.
Cakes, pies, doughnuts, muffins, pastries and all sorts of other things cakey and flaky make the list, as do chips, crisps, popcorn and finger food of all stripes. Ice cream, candy, chocolate, custard, scones, churros and much, much more all get a pass from the USDA — in fact, if a kid can dream of it, chances are good SNAP will pay for it.
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