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How Food Stamp Programs Work

The Federal food stamps program (or SNAP: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) is always in the news. It’s good, it’s bad, the program doesn’t supply enough, it supplies too much and gets abused, etc.

But here’s what you should know: The Federal and State governments have set aside funds for those individuals and families who simply don’t make enough money to cover all their (modest) living expenses AND get enough nutritional food to eat.

If you’ve been in that situation—and over 46 million of your fellow Americans have—it’s nothing to be ashamed of. The programs are there to be used. They’re there to be used by you, if you need them. They can provide a lifeline during a temporary setback, or help supplement income from a low-paying job. They’ll help you to provide healthier food for your family.

The SNAP program, as well as a few others, is administered by the Hawaii Department of Human Services Benefit, Employment & Support Services Division. Also on their website you’ll find information about other assistance programs such as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and more.

Who can receive SNAP benefits?
There are three primary criteria:

  • You must be a U.S. citizen, and all household members must have a Social Security number.
  • Your household’s “countable” resources cannot exceed $2,000. Countable includes cash and money in bank accounts, but does not include a home or property. If one member of your household is over 60, you are allowed a $3,000 countable resource limit.
  • Your household’s combined gross monthly income (that is your income from all sources before any deductions are taken out) must equal no more than 130% of the Federal poverty guidelines. AND your household’s net income must be no more than 100% of the Federal poverty guidelines. For these purposes, “net” means your household’s total gross income minus government approved deductions for childcare, housing costs, and other approved expenses.


  • Households where all members receive, or are authorized to receive TANF or SSI cash assistance, are categorically eligible for SNAP.
  • If you are able to work, you may have to meet certain work requirements.

During the recession, SNAP benefits were expanded. A new category of recipients was added: Broad-Based Categorical Eligibility (BBCE). This new category expands SNAP benefits to low-income families with high expenses, and to families whose gross incomes are slightly higher than the 130% Federal Poverty Limit normal gross income test.

This can all be very complicated to figure out! Your best bet is to go into your local benefits office or Social Security office, sit down with a representative, and work it through. Try to fill out your application as best you can in advance.

What are Federal poverty guidelines?
These guidelines are a measure of income level issued annually by the Department of Health and Human Services. Federal poverty levels are used to determine your eligibility for certain programs and benefits, such as Medicaid and SNAP.

For more detailed information on the Federal poverty guidelines, see here. Scroll down to view Hawaii’s own specific guidelines. You’ll see that they range from a household of one person at 100% of the poverty level to a household size of eight at 400% of the poverty level. Where you and your household fall in that grid determines your eligibility for assistance programs.

How much can you receive?
It all depends on your household’s combined income, your family size, and your resources. Your assistance is calculated using your specific qualifications. The lowest-income families with the lowest resources will obviously need, and receive, the most assistance. Benefits can range greatly, from under $200 per month up to $500, depending on number of people in the household and their financial status.

How can you apply for SNAP benefits?

What you’ll need with you when you apply:

  • Name, address and phone number
  • Date of birth, Social Security number
  • Gender, ethnicity, marital status, citizenship
  • Monthly household income
  • Monthly household expenses such as rent/mortgage, utilities and phone
  • The same information on others in your household
  • Household members’ employer information
  • Non-employment income sources
  • Expenses for child/dependent support and medical services
  • Household members’ resources such as bank accounts, CDs, Mutual Funds and cash
  • Children’s information if you need assistance for children

You may also need to supply documentation, so bring whatever paperwork you can.

How long will it take before you receive benefits, and how will they arrive?
If you are approved, you’ll receive an approval letter through the mail.

It’s probably best to figure on the process taking anywhere between four business days and three weeks. It all depends on how complicated your application is, and how backlogged the system is.

You’ll receive your benefits loaded onto an Electric Benefit Transfer card (other benefits can get deposited to your card as well, if you have any). You can use your SNAP benefits at authorized food retailers, such as groceries, markets, and convenient stores, through their Point of Sale (POS) machines and Automated Teller Machines (ATMs).  Allpoint® – Global Surcharge-Free ATM Networks are located across the state. Find the system nearest to you here.

What can you buy with SNAP benefits?
You CAN buy: Foods for the household to eat, such as:

  • Breads and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Meats, fish and poultry
  • Dairy products
  • Seeds and plants that produce food for the household to eat

You CANNOT buy:

  • Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco

You also CANNOT buy any non-food items, such as:

  • Pet foods
  • Soaps, paper products
  • Household supplies
  • Vitamins and medicines


  • Food that will be eaten in the store
  • Hot foods

Find more details on what is and is not eligible here.

Still confused, can’t get to the benefits office, or need some extra help?
You can also seek help and advice from local non-profit groups. In Hawaii, these groups offer SNAP assistance:

WIC: Another nutritional services program
WIC (women, infants, children) is another, more specific, assistance program. It includes supplemental foods, free lunch programs for kids, nutrition education, breastfeeding assistance, and health and social services referrals. Eligible are: women who are either pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum; and infants and children under the age of five. They must meet income guidelines and have a medical or nutritional risk. There are more details on the program in this online brochure, and this is the program website.

Remember: The SNAP (Food Stamp) and other assistance programs are there to be used. They’re there to be used by you, when and if you need them. They won’t solve all your problems, or even fill all your family’s food needs, but they will help.

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