Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is the United States’ largest federal nutrition program, helping feed about 40 million people each year. It is also the largest child anti-hunger program - nearly half of SNAP recipients are children and two-thirds of SNAP benefits go to households with children.

About SNAP
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides monthly food benefits to eligible households on a debit-style Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card that is used to purchase food from approved retailers.

SNAP is an effective and efficient program allowing participating families to purchase food that fits their needs in the places they normally shop like grocery stores and farmers markets. SNAP can also be used to purchase food online.

Any U.S. citizen and certain lawfully present non-citizens can receive SNAP benefits if they qualify. The program is available nationwide and in U.S. territories. 

  • Some U.S. territories operate the Nutrition Assistance Program instead of SNAP - a program that provides a fixed amount to participating territories to provide food assistance to households. 

SNAP is a federal program that is overseen by the United States Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Services (USDA FNS) and is administered by states. 

  • SNAP is formerly known as food stamps, and some states call it a different name such as CalFresh in California or FoodShare in Wisconsin. 
How SNAP Works
SNAP is an entitlement program which means it is available to anyone who is determined eligible and all who are eligible will receive benefits. 

Applicants are required to meet income guidelines to qualify for SNAP. For some, like college students, there are additional eligibility requirements beyond income. Learn more about SNAP eligibility.

  • A household is considered everyone who lives together and purchases and prepares meals together.  
  • Generally, a household’s gross income needs to be at or below 130% of the Federal Poverty Level (FPL) to qualify for SNAP. In 2022, for a household of four that is $2,871 a month or $34,452 a year. However, income guidelines vary from state to state between 130-200% FPL. 

SNAP benefit levels are based on household size, income and expenses. A household’s expenses like shelter costs, utilities, and dependent care are factored in when calculating the benefit amount they will receive. Generally, households with less income will receive more benefits. 

  • Benefits can be up to $939 a month for a family of four (benefit amounts are different in Alaska, Hawaii,  Guam and the U.S. Virgin Islands). 
  • In October 2021, SNAP benefits were permanently increased 21% with an update to the Thrifty Food Plan, the underlying calculation that determines how benefit levels are set. This change helps SNAP benefits better fit modern families needs and food prices. This was the first time an update like this occurred since the 1970s.  

Applying for and receiving SNAP will have no immigration consequences for those who apply or their families. SNAP is not considered as part of public charge (the public charge rule is a test applied to certain individuals going through particular immigration processes to consider if they will depend too much on government support in the future).

Application Process
The SNAP application process involves completing and submitting an application, conducting an interview, and submitting required documents. 
  • Step 1
    • A household needs to apply for SNAP in the state where they live: 
    • Applications can be done online, over-the-phone, in-person or submitted by mail.
    • To start the application process, a household only needs to submit a name, mailing address, and signature. 
  • Step 2
    • An interview with an eligibility worker is scheduled and can be done over-the-phone or in-person. 
    • Many households will be asked to provide a form of identification, income verification like a paystub, and proof of certain expenses like utilities. 
  • Step 3
    • After the interview and required verification is submitted, a household will be determined eligible for SNAP. The state agency will send a letter to the household letting them know if they are eligible and what amount of benefits they will receive. 
    • States are required to complete the process within 30 days of when a household submits their application. For households with very little income and resources, their application is required to be expedited and processed within seven days.
Receiving Benefits
SNAP Benefits are provided on an EBT card that is mailed to a household or can be picked-up in-person.

Initial benefits are prorated from the date an application is received and then provided on a monthly basis moving forward. Benefits are uploaded onto a household’s EBT card based on their state's issuance schedule often within the first nine days of the month.  

Benefits are used to purchase food at approved retailers including grocery stores, farmers markets, and online. The USDA has a searchable database of stores that accept SNAP. The USDA has also launched a SNAP online pilot that enables SNAP recipients to shop with their benefits online in 49 states with new retailers and expanded services continuing to occur. 

  • A new study from No Kid Hungry conducted in partnership with the University of Kentucky with support from Instacart shows that SNAP, low-income, and rural customers want access to shop online with targeted support that makes it easier to use while also highlighting barriers that perpetuate inequitable access including fees, difficulties for smaller and rural retailers to participate, and geographic barriers.

SNAP is used to purchase food and food producing plants and seeds. Generally, SNAP benefits cannot be used to purchase hot, ready-to-eat foods, however there are some states that provide this opportunity making SNAP more accessible to those experiencing houselessness and those with disabilities. 

Many farmers markets and some stores offer SNAP incentive programs providing a match to SNAP benefits to increase purchasing power for families - one example is Double Up Food Bucks.

Maintaining Benefits
Requirements for maintaining SNAP benefits after the initial application

Households are certified for SNAP for a period of time often between six and twelve months (some households with elderly adults can be certified for longer). At the end of the certification period, households need to reapply for SNAP. In between, households are required to report if their income goes above a certain threshold and are encouraged to report if they have a change in their situation like an increase in costs that may qualify them for more benefits.

State agencies primarily communicate needed paperwork and requirements to families through the mail.

Impacts of SNAP
SNAP is important for our communities. SNAP supports families, communities, and schools to thrive by:
  • Reducing food insecurity and hunger 
  • Keeping families and children out of poverty
  • Boosting local economies
    • SNAP is spent in the community it is received and often in the month of receipt. Every $1 in SNAP generates $1.54 in economic activity supporting local grocery stores and farmers.  
  • Improving health and education outcomes
    • Children with access to SNAP are likelier to be in good health and are at lower risk of developmental delays. Overall, SNAP participants incur nearly 25% less medical costs than low-income non-participants in a year. 
    • SNAP participation can lead to gains in reading and math skills for elementary children and increases the chance of high school graduation. 
  • Helping school finances
    • Kids enrolled in SNAP are directly certified for free school meals, meaning families don’t need to submit an application resulting in savings for school districts since they do not need to collect and verify this information. With more students qualified for free school meals, schools receive full reimbursement for these meals improving school meal program finances
SNAP Participation
Reaching eligible kids and families that are not participating in SNAP is important. Understand the reasons why someone may not participate even if they are eligible.

Nationwide 18% of people who are eligible for SNAP are not participating in the program. That means that nearly 1 in 5 eligible individuals are missing out on critical food assistance for which they qualify. 

The USDA documents participation rates to show how each state is doing to reach people eligible for SNAP. 

There are many reasons why people do not participate in SNAP that are eligible including

  • Not knowing about SNAP, what it provides, and how to qualify
  • Barriers in the application process such as complicated paperwork, language access, lack of transportation, internet or phone access, and difficulties with providing documentation
  • Stigma about needing or receiving assistance 
  • Concerns that SNAP participation could impact the citizenship process or cause problems related to immigration
  • Negative experiences with accessing services in the past or interacting with case workers

There are underserved populations that are less likely to participate in SNAP even though they are eligible. These include immigrant communities and mixed status households, college students, those that are working but still in poverty, and older adults.  

  • Worries about the impact of SNAP on an individual’s immigration status or the citizenship process prevent many people from enrolling in benefits for which they are eligible. Attempts to change the public charge rule in recent years exacerbated this worry creating a chilling effect on participation among eligible immigrants and mixed-status families. Though the rule has been reversed, and receiving SNAP is not considered as part of a public charge determination, many eligible people still avoid the program.
  • Complicated eligibility rules make it hard for college students to qualify for SNAP and this confusion leads to under enrollment. 
  • The perception that the effort to access SNAP outweighs the benefit impacts working families and older adults who may not realize the amount of support they could receive and the additional benefits SNAP provides.
Outreach Strategies
Spread the word about SNAP in your community

Addressing common barriers to SNAP access through outreach and assistance ensures more people who qualify will receive it. Anyone can do SNAP outreach and most states also have a SNAP outreach plan that supports formal contractors in these efforts. 

There are many ways to do SNAP outreach and enrollment. The best methods are those that are specific to the audience and community you are trying to reach. Think about the families in your community - how do they typically receive information? Utilize the channels that families are familiar with to share information about SNAP.

Learn proven SNAP outreach and enrollment strategies:

  • Targeting Outreach:
    • Conducting targeted outreach to those that are likely eligible is a key strategy. An effective method is to do outreach to people who participate in a program with similar eligibility to SNAP like free and reduced price school meals or Medicaid. 
    • State agencies, schools, and non-profit organizations can take this a step further through data matching between two programs with similar eligibility, such as SNAP and WIC, to identify eligible people who are participating in one program but not the other then conduct targeted outreach to those individuals. Data matching and cross enrollment efforts help streamline access to SNAP. 
      • No Kid Hungry supports Benefits Data Trust (BDT) to partner with state agencies to do data analysis to identify those eligible but not participating in SNAP and connect with them about the program. In Maryland, BDT identified individuals receiving heating assistance and Medicaid but not SNAP providing them with targeted outreach and application support, which successfully increased the number of households enrolled in SNAP. 
      • The Coordinating SNAP & Nutrition Supports cohort administered by the American Public Human Services Association and funded by No Kid Hungry supports state and county agencies who are engaged in efforts to improve federal nutrition program access. A number of sites are focused on using data and technology to increase cross-program enrollment. 
  • Providing Application Assistance:
    • The SNAP application process can be lengthy and confusing often leading to eligible individuals not being able to complete the process. Providing application assistance by helping someone to fill out and submit the paperwork, prepare for their interview, and turn in necessary documents is key to increasing SNAP enrollment. 
    • Meeting people where they are at and providing assistance through a variety of methods (in-person, over-the-phone or via an online platform) helps ensure applicants successfully enroll. 
      • mRelief makes the SNAP application process easier and more dignified by providing a text-based eligibility screener and using mobile technology to apply. They also partner with local organizations providing referrals to application assisters for those that want this support. 
  • Addressing Immigration Concerns:
    • Spread the word that SNAP is not considered for public charge. Be clear that applying for and receiving SNAP will have no immigration consequences for those who apply and their families. 
      • Protecting Immigrant Families Coalition released a recent survey, funded by No Kid Hungry, sharing that 3 out of 4 immigrant families were unaware of the public charge reversal, but that knowledge about the reversal makes them more likely to seek safety net programs when needed. The survey also shares valuable information about trusted messengers and channels to share information about resources like SNAP. 
    • Proven strategies to help ensure immigrant communities have accurate information about SNAP include:
      • Providing accurate guidance on public charge and resources to guide decision making for families
      • Equipping trusted messengers to conduct outreach
      • Providing multiple messages and touch points about the program
      • Encouraging official government entities to share about the public charge reversal and publish official documents (such as this one from the USDA) to support these efforts.   
    • UnidosUS and No Kid Hungry created a social media toolkit to share about SNAP.
  • Engaging Participants:
    • SNAP participants are experts in the program and are key to ensuring program policies, implementation, and outreach are effective. Engaging participants in meaningful and on-going efforts to make the program better and evaluate outreach is a best practice for ensuring efforts are meeting their intended goals. 
      • The Coordinating SNAP & Nutrition Supports cohort supports state and county agencies who are engaged in efforts to improve federal nutrition program access including engaging participating families in program decisions and incorporating human-centered design into state agency processes.
Policies and Practices to Increase Access to SNAP
States administering SNAP have options to make the program more accessible.

There are many policies available that help to simplify the application process, make it easier to maintain benefits, and expand eligibility to underserved populations. The USDA’s State Options Report provides an overview of available choices states have made to increase access.

Examples include:

  • Adopting broad based categorical eligibility streamlines the eligibility process and helps with the benefits cliff ensuring people aren’t cut off from benefits if they make a few extra dollars
  • Simplified reporting alleviates administrative burdens and unnecessary paperwork
  • Removing the asset test ensures applicants are not denied benefits for reasons like owning a car to be able to go to work
  • Expanding retailers approved to accept SNAP online increases accessibility for those with transportation or mobility barriers. A new study from No Kid Hungry conducted in partnership with the University of Kentucky with support from Instacart shows that SNAP, low-income, and rural customers want access to shop online with targeted support that makes it easier to use. 

Efforts to modernize SNAP is a focus for the federal government, state agencies, and advocates. Modernization efforts involve simplifying the application process, upgrading technology, and incorporating participant experiences so that accessing SNAP can reflect modern ways we receive goods and services.

  • Learn how states are modernizing the SNAP program through investments in technology and customer-centered system changes. A research project by the American Public Human Services Association (APHSA), Share Our Strength, and the Urban Institute is documenting the ways state SNAP agencies are using the administrative funds authorized through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to modernize the program. 
  • The Coordinating SNAP and Nutrition Supports cohort program from Share Our Strength and APHSA supports state SNAP agencies in projects that streamline food access and lower barriers in the application process through collaboration, co-enrollment, technology, and human-centered design.
SNAP Supports Schools
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) supports families and children to have the food they need, but it also support schools. 

Ensuring SNAP access for eligible families helps schools to: 

  • Reach more students with free school meals while saving administration costs and staff time. SNAP participation also boosts school nutrition department revenue by increasing the number of meals that get full federal reimbursement. 
  • Secure money for education programs and supports like libraries and internet access. 
  • Improve student education outcomes including increasing the chance of high school graduation. 
  • Provide more resources for students, families, and their communities like discounted internet service and identifying areas eligible for free community-wide afterschool and summer meal programs. 
  • Become eligible for and increase revenue potential in the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP) which allows schools to offer free breakfast and lunch to all students.

Sharing about SNAP in your school community helps eligible families know about the program while also providing more resources for your school. 

Read our resource to learn additional ways SNAP benefits the entire school community.

Direct Certification
Direct certification plays an important role in the connection between SNAP and schools.

Students who are in a household receiving SNAP are directly certified for free school meals. This means students automatically qualify for free meals and their families do not need to submit a school meal application. Direct certification saves time for families and schools while also lowering school administrative costs. Direct certification also improves access to school meals for students from households with low-incomes.  

State systems provide the direct certification information to schools so the school nutrition department can link their enrolled students to the participating student and family information provided by the state. It’s important to check direct certification lists regularly to ensure all students are captured. A child only needs to be in a household receiving SNAP at some point in the year to be directly certified for free school meals for the whole school year.

There are other programs that also directly certify children for free or reduced price school meals including Temporary Assistance for Needing Families (TANF), the Food Distribution Program on Indian Reservations (FDPIR), and Medicaid (in some states*). The USDA is currently allowing states to participate in a pilot to add Medicaid data to their direct certification systems helping more students to automatically qualify for free school meals. 

  • In school year 2019-2020, more than 1.2 million students were directly certified for free school meals based on Medicaid data in 13 states where this was measured. 

More directly certified students means schools will have a higher Identified Student Percentage (ISP), which increases the likelihood of qualifying for and boosts the revenue potential of the Community Eligibility Provision (CEP). CEP allows all students at the participating school to receive free school meals.

Learn more about direct certification best practices and maximizing ISP

*Current states using Medicaid data to directly certify students: Alabama, Arizona, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, New York City, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
Outreach Strategies for School Settings
Schools are a great place to reach eligible families and children who are not participating in SNAP.

Schools are generally a trusted space for families to learn new information and connect with resources. 

There are many ways schools can increase awareness about SNAP that utilize regular communication channels with families such as messaging caregivers through text or adding information about SNAP to your website.

  • Our SNAP Outreach in Schools Toolkit features examples of messaging and materials from partners conducting SNAP outreach and enrollment through schools. The toolkit also has customizable scripts, outreach materials, and social media posts in English, Spanish, Chinese (Simplified and Traditional), Tagalog, and Vietnamese to support you in getting the word out about SNAP in your school community. 

Many different school staff and administrators can be messengers for SNAP information - principals, parent coordinators, social workers, nutrition directors and staff, and administrators working in the front office. A coordinated, cross-school outreach effort can lead to strong results. Oftentimes it takes exposure to information multiple times to know about an available resource and take action. 

In addition to raising awareness about SNAP, ensuring families are connected to support to enroll in the program is critical. The best outreach efforts also involve providing application assistance. This can look like making a referral to a provider in your area, hosting an enrollment event with trained experts providing assistance on-site, or having a staff member that can walk families through the application. 

Schools do not have to go about this work alone. There are many organizations that conduct SNAP outreach and application assistance that are great partners in this work. These organizations are well-versed in SNAP outreach and often have staff who provide expert assistance. Your state SNAP agency can provide you with contact information for organizations that do this work in your area - oftentimes it's your local food bank, community action agency or non-profit service providers.