The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the nation's largest nutrition assistance program and first line of defense against hunger. Federal and state policies play a key role in ensuring that kids and families who need help affording groceries can access SNAP.
SNAP enables eligible households to afford nutritious food by providing funds through a debit-style Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card. The EBT card is reloaded monthly with a benefit level based on each household’s size and financial situation. These restricted funds can only be spent on eligible food items at USDA-approved retailers.
SNAP is regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the federal government provides funding to cover the full cost of the benefits. The cost to administer the program is shared between states and the federal government. Applications for SNAP are processed at the local (typically county) level, and participants work directly with their local agency to maintain eligibility.
Ensuring that eligible families with children participate in SNAP is critical to support access to adequate nutrition not only at home but also at school. Students in households that participate in SNAP can be directly certified for free school meals, and schools with enough directly certified students may be able to offer meals at no charge to all students through the Community Eligibility Provision.
For more background on SNAP, download our one-pager or view our SNAP program page with more information and resources.
To be eligible for SNAP, households must have a gross income of less than 130% of the federal poverty guidelines and have limited resources. The federal poverty guidelines are updated annually. Other eligibility requirements vary between states, including resource limits and special rules for the elderly and people with disabilities.
To maintain eligibility, participants also have to fulfill work requirements. Participants who are between ages 16 – 59 and able to work must meet the general work requirements. If participants do not meet the work requirements or obtain an exemption, they must reapply and demonstrate compliance. Additionally, participants ages 18 – 49 who do not have any dependent children are considered Able-Bodied Adults Without Dependents (ABAWDs) and must prove that they meet additional, more stringent work requirements. If ABAWDs are not able to prove that they met the work requirements, they are subject to a time limit: they may only participate in SNAP for a maximum of three months in a three-year time period.
For more on participant eligibility, see our page on how SNAP works.
To qualify as a SNAP retailer, businesses must apply and then maintain eligibility through the USDA Food and Nutrition Service. Retail applicants must meet specific standards and adhere to appropriate business practices, and they must verify all information with business and tax records, appropriate licenses, and any other documentation requested.
Standards for retailers are set to help SNAP participants purchase healthy and nutrient-rich foods. Retailers generally qualify under one of two sets of standards known as Criterion A or Criterion B.
Criterion A requires that a store stock at least 36 staple food items, of which six must be perishable. Additionally, these 36 staple food items must meet the depth and breadth of stock requirements, such as maintaining certain amounts of fresh food and variety of stock that represents all food categories. There are four staple food categories: (1) vegetables or fruits; (2) meat, poultry, or fish; (3) dairy products; and (4) breads or cereals. (It is important to note that heated foods, hot foods, and cold prepared foods are not considered staple foods.)
Criterion B requires that a store have more than 50% of its total gross retail sales be from one or more of the staple food categories. Criterion B stores generally specialize in selling items from one staple food category but don’t qualify for Criterion A because the store cannot meet the stocking requirements.
If for some reason a retailer cannot meet the requirements of A or B but operates in an area considered low income and with considerable low access to food, a retailer may qualify under the “Need for Access” standards. This retailer must also qualify under all other SNAP retailer standards.
The USDA maintains a searchable list of the locations of current SNAP retailers at https://www.fns.usda.gov/snap/retailer-locator.
In 2021, more than 41 million people in the United States participated in SNAP.
SNAP supports families with children, seniors, and adults living with disabilities:
- An estimated 14 million children, or one in five U.S. children, participate in SNAP.
- 66% of all SNAP recipients live in a household with children.
- 36% of all SNAP recipients live with someone who is elderly or has a disability.
SNAP is a counter-cyclical program that is intended to respond to changes in economic conditions—when the economy is lagging, more households become eligible for SNAP, and participation increases to support people when they need additional financial support. As the economy improves, SNAP participation declines.
SNAP is an effective program, linked to reduced food insecurity, lower healthcare costs and improved health outcomes. Still, there are numerous ways the program could be improved to better meet the needs of kids and families today.
As Congress negotiates the 2023 Farm Bill, Share Our Strength urges Congress to:
Protect the value of SNAP benefits
- Protect the increase in SNAP benefits resulting from the recent Thrifty Food Plan revision directed by the 2018 Farm Bill.
Maintain and increase access to SNAP
- Preserve and expand broad-based categorical eligibility (BBCE).
- Prevent additional work requirements for able-bodied adults without dependents (ABAWDs) or the elimination of state waivers.
- Expand and improve online ordering through SNAP.
- Oppose limits on eligibility through changes to the asset test.
- Improve SNAP technology to streamline administration and promote equitable access, including making permanent the COVID-19 waiver options for telephonic signatures and telephone interviews.
- Support equity for Tribal communities by allowing participation in both SNAP and FDPIR in the same month.
- Allow U.S. citizens residing in Puerto Rico, American Samoa, and the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands to fully participate in SNAP.
- Strengthen the collection and disaggregation of data.
- Support access to SNAP for military families by excluding the basic housing allowance as income and ensuring access for veterans with disabilities.
- Promote community engagement and outreach among underserved communities.
- Provide USDA with permanent authority to issue nationwide SNAP waivers in the event of future crises.
Defend and expand access to SNAP-Ed
- Strengthen nutrition education by protecting and supporting SNAP-Ed, maintaining the current funding stream to states.
- Provide increased flexibility within the program activities, evaluation and allowable expenses that increase community engagement in SNAP-Ed.
If you wish to learn more and share these priorities, you can download the full list of Share Our Strength's 2023 Farm Bill priorities.
The Farm Bill is the primary mechanism for updating the federal legislation that governs SNAP. Please see the Farm Bill section of our Federal Policy page for more background on the Farm Bill as well as the current status.
However, Congress still may pass SNAP legislation outside of the Farm Bill.
While SNAP's entitlement structure naturally supports more families in need during tough times, more support may be needed to help struggling families and boost economic activity in response to severe economic shocks. In these cases, Congress may authorize changes to SNAP in order to provide additional resources to families and promote recovery. This occurred in response to the 2008 recession, and it occurred again in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, COVID-19 also required a change in program administration to allow for social distancing and safety. Congress authorized higher benefit levels as well as a range of program flexibilities and waivers through COVID-19 response legislation like the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the CARES Act, and the American Rescue Plan Act. For more details, view this information on SNAP changes and flexibilities during COVID-19.
Additionally, Congress may make changes to SNAP through the appropriations process. SNAP is a permanently authorized entitlement program, so it does not require an annual appropriation in order to continue. However, Congress may pass legislative changes in conjunction with appropriations bills. This happened with Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023, which authorized reimbursement for SNAP participants who have their benefits stolen through EBT card skimming between October 1, 2022 and September 30, 2024. It also directed USDA to issue guidance to states on theft prevention and card security measures. This bill also curtailed the temporary SNAP emergency allotments authorized in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Although SNAP is a federal program, state administering agencies have options in a number of areas that can simplify and streamline program administration. For example, states may choose to align the income and resource limits required for SNAP eligibility with the limits for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and Medicaid, or they may choose to implement a policy called Broad Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE). BBCE allows states to extend categorical eligibility for SNAP to households that non-cash benefits from TANF or Maintenance of Effort funds as long as the household meets the net income limit and other eligibility rules for SNAP. (Households that receive cash assistance from TANF and Supplemental Security Income are required by law to be considered categorically eligible for SNAP.) States also have flexibility in determining how frequently to recertify households as eligible for SNAP. Conversely, states administering agencies also have options that can limit access, such as implementing more stringent consequences like permanent disqualification after the third occurrence of a head of household not demonstrating compliance with work requirements.
Additionally, state legislatures may pass state laws that complement federal legislation and regulations for SNAP. For example, states may pass laws that authorize use of state funds that reimburse victims of skimming that are not covered by federal law. (Skimming is a method of stealing SNAP participants' benefits by copying their EBT card information through a device illegally placed on top of retailers' card readers.) States may also use state funds to provide grocery benefits to individuals who are not eligible for SNAP under federal law.