Though EBT and SNAP benefits should primarily be used for healthy foods, there are several surprising items you can buy with these funds. An Easter basket or ice cream, for instance, are two examples of things you might not realize you can buy with your EBT card.
There are a lot of surprising things you can buy with your EBT card. This is especially important for low-income families that rely on food stamp benefits to feed their families. While it’s of the utmost importance to provide nutritious meals, it’s also nice to have some treats once in a while that just make life more enjoyable.
To maximize your SNAP benefits, it’s best to stick to the dietary staples of meat, dairy products, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables. However, sometimes you want to add a little something extra to make the meal special, like a shrimp appetizer or a birthday cake for your child’s sweet sixteen. Food stamps benefits are flexible enough to allow for both options. In this article, we’ll review what the food stamp program is, when you can use your EBT card, and what items you can and can’t buy with food stamps.
A brief history of the food stamp benefits program
The first iteration of the food stamp program began in 1939 and passed through a lot of studies, reports, and legislative proposals before President Kennedy initiated a pilot program in 1961. His aim, which fulfilled a campaign promise, was to expand food distribution to families in need. Finally, in 1964, the Food Stamp Act was passed into legislation by President Johnson and the food stamp program became permanent.
Among other official purposes, the food stamp benefits program was designed to strengthen the agricultural economy and provide improved levels of nutrition among low-income families. More practically, it was said to bring the food stamp pilot program under Congressional control and to enact the regulations into law. Eventually in 2008, after a lot of tinkering, the program was renamed the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — SNAP benefits for short.
What is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)?
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the newest incarnation of a federally funded nutrition benefits program. It’s designed to supplement the grocery budgets of low-income families so they can purchase healthy food as they move toward the goal of self-sufficiency.
Also known as food stamps, this is the higher-tech version of the food stamp program provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) division.
Instead of spending physical food stamps, as in the past, eligible families now have the convenience of using an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to purchase food benefits from a variety of grocery stores and other retail establishments. The EBT card works much like a credit or debit card and, among other benefits, removes some of the stigma of shopping with food stamps.
Which stores accept food stamp benefits?
There are many stores that honor SNAP benefits. In fact, almost all grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and other retail outlets will accept food stamps as payment for the food benefits program.
Check with the local SNAP office in your state to find participating retailers in your area or you can look it up online at the FNS website.
Can you use SNAP benefits to shop online?
Many online retailers now accept SNAP benefits as payment, which is great news for those with limited mobility, who live in rural areas, or who don’t have a car. Many retailers also offer free shipping too, making it just as economically sound as going to the local grocery store.
Some participating stores include Aldi, Walmart, Amazon, Safeway, and Albertsons, just to name a few. You can find which stores serve your area by looking online.
What can you buy with SNAP benefits?
These are just the general guidelines of food items available to purchase with your food stamps or SNAP benefits. For a full list of appropriate food items, visit FNS’s website and click on the various links for more specifics.
- Fresh produce food, including most fruits and vegetables
- Meats, poultry, and fish, including shellfish
- Breads, cereals, and grains, including pasta and rice
- Dairy products, including butter, milk, and cheese
- Other foods such as snack foods, spices, spreads, and nonalcoholic beverages
- Fruit and vegetable plants or seeds to grow plants that produce food
What can’t you buy with food stamps?
While you can buy most food and beverage items with food stamps, there are some exceptions. To find a more comprehensive list, please visit the FNS website.
- Beer, wine, liquor, or other alcoholic beverages
- Cigarettes, cigars, e-cigarettes, or other tobacco products
- Vitamins, medicines, and supplements
- Live animals (other than shellfish, fish removed from water, and animals prepared prior to pick up)
- Prepared hot foods that are sold hot at the point of sale (such as fried chicken from the deli, hot soups, or hot coffee)
- Prepared cold foods that are mixed and assembled onsite, such as deli salads
- Non-food items, such as:
- Pet foods
- Cleaning supplies, paper products, and other household items
- Cosmetics and hygiene products
Surprising things you can buy with food stamps benefits
Unfortunately, you can’t buy tobacco, vitamins, booze, and pet food with SNAP benefits. However, you might be surprised to hear what items are eligible for food stamp purchases.
Especially around holiday times, buying gift baskets is a nice perk that low-income households can purchase with SNAP benefits. The only requirement is that the food items included in the gift baskets must equal 50% or more of the total price.
For example, Easter baskets filled mostly with candy and a couple of small toys are eligible food stamp items. A basket with only toys, however, would not be eligible.
Buying seeds for fruit and vegetable plants is a great way for low-income families to maximize their food budgets and save money. For a fraction of the price of buying produce at retail stores, low-income individuals can buy seeds (or plants). This both saves money and allows you to create your own backyard garden to enjoy fresh fruits and vegetables for much of the year.
Hunting and fishing equipment
Some of the most surprising things you can buy with food stamp benefits are nonfood items such as hunting and fishing equipment.
To be eligible for this benefit, you must live in an area where access to retail stores is difficult and you must rely substantially on hunting and fishing for subsistence. However, as of 2019, this permission was only available to remote Alaskan residents through a specially-marked identification card. Those with this card also can’t use their hunting or fishing equipment for commercial purposes.
Everyone deserves a birthday cake on their special day, and you can use food stamps to purchase one. You’ll have to choose one with minimal decoration, as the “food” part of the cake must cost more than the items used to decorate it. But a cake that’s decorated simply with some words in icing and a few candles is certainly eligible to be bought with your SNAP benefits.
Although buying meals at restaurants is generally not an eligible purchase with food stamps, there are a few exceptions. The Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) is a state-run option that allows certain individuals to use their food stamps card at participating eateries, including fast food restaurants.
To be eligible, you must be either homeless, disabled, or elderly (defined as over 60 years of age). To benefit, you’ll need to find out if your state is a participant in the program and what restaurants work with the program.
Lobster falls under the category of live animals that you can buy with food stamps (along with other shellfish). This definitely counts as a luxury buy, but there is no law that says you can’t treat yourself to a decadent lobster once in awhile.
Farmers market purchases
It’s no surprise that your food stamps are eligible for fruit and vegetable purchases. However, you may not be aware that you can buy that produce directly from the farmers market.
No one can argue that fresh-from-the-farm produce has a lot more flavor (and arguably more nutritional value) than the grocery store varieties. Check with your local SNAP office to find the location of participating farmers markets near you.
Can you buy energy drinks with SNAP benefits?
You can buy some, but not all, energy drinks with food stamps. Energy drinks such as 5-hour Energy, for example, aren’t included as the product is a supplement (and barely more than a large shot of caffeine). That being said, many other brands are eligible for SNAP purchase.
Under the FDA, a supplement (even if it’s an energy drink) is not a food item and therefore cannot be purchased using your SNAP benefits. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t buy any energy drink. Many other popular companies such as Monster and Red Bull are eligible for SNAP purchases.
Can you buy protein powder with food stamps?
Yes, you can buy protein powder and other diet-type products with your EBT card. However, much like with energy drinks, you can only purchase the brands that are considered food. If the item is labeled as a supplement, it’s not eligible for purchase with food stamps benefits.
Can you buy formula with food stamp benefits?
Baby formula falls under the category of dairy products and is eligible to buy with food stamps. You can also purchase any other type of baby food, baby cereal, or baby snacks or juices with your food stamps card.
What can you buy with EBT at Walmart?
Walmart sells pretty much everything, including a wide array of food items, and accepts food stamps. So, you can buy practically everything you’re allowed to buy with EBT at Walmart. They also have low prices, a lot of sales, and are located in most communities, making them a smart choice for low-income families to shop. The reasonable prices in comparison to some retailers allow families to maximize the food stamps benefits.
Can you buy dog food with your food stamp card?
You can’t buy any type of pet food with food stamp benefits, but that doesn’t mean you can’t buy food for people and feed it to your pet.
For instance, your cat probably won’t turn up its nose at a can of tuna fish. You could also buy beef bones for your dog from the butcher, and you might get them for free.
Can you buy alcohol with EBT?
Alcoholic beverages of any kind are not eligible for purchase with your food stamps card. That being said, you can still use SNAP benefits for most nonalcoholic beverages, including mixers that pair nicely with alcohol such as tonic water, certain energy drinks, or lemonade.
You’ll have to purchase the alcohol separately of course, but it’s a way to minimize your out-of-pocket costs if you want to have a little party that includes adult beverages.
Can you buy Starbucks with an EBT card?
While you can’t use your food stamp card to purchase items at a Starbucks coffee shop, Starbucks does sell many of its products at retail outlets. Because they’re considered food items and have some nutritional value, you can get your Starbucks fix using your food stamp benefits at these stores.
- SNAP benefits provide a supplement to the grocery budgets of low-income families to help purchase healthy food.
- Most grocery stores and other retail outlets that sell food accept food stamps for the purchase of eligible items.
- There are several of surprising things you can buy with food stamps, including birthday cakes, lobster, and food-producing plants and seeds.
- While the main focus of food stamp benefits should be on providing healthy meals, it’s okay to treat you and your family to some special luxuries on occasion.
View Article Sources
- What is Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT)? — U.S. Department of Agriculture
- SNAP EBT Equipment Resources — U.S. Department of Agriculture
- How To Buy Stocks With a Debit Card — SuperMoney
- The Ultimate Guide to Budgeting — SuperMoney
- 7 Easy Steps to Create a Successful Budget — SuperMoney
- Money Management Tools: Reviews & Comparisons — SuperMoney