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Yes, There Is A Free Lunch!

Food Stamps, School Lunches, Food Packets, and Other Food Assistance

October 1999

We've all heard it -- "In this life, there's no free lunch!" But what's true in general sometimes isn't so for those who have little enough money -- especially for those who are disabled!

The federal government, operating through state and local agencies but using nationwide eligibility rules, operates several food assistance programs for people on limited incomes. The most well-known are the Food Stamp and School Lunch Programs. In addition, though, School Breakfast, the Summer Food Service Program for children during summer vacation, free food packets for participants in needs-based programs, food purchase vouchers for mothers of infants and toddlers, are also funded by the federal government through state agencies, as is food stocking of not-for-profit group homes, pantries, and meals delivery programs serving the disabled.

 What's a "Food Stamp Household" Anyway?
In determining eligibility, the Food Stamp Program counts together the incomes of all persons living in the household who purchase, store, prepare, and eat food together. Therefore, unrelated persons such as lovers, roommates, boarders, etc. will have their incomes included as part of the household income unless they submit documentation -- notes, backed up by rent receipts and utility bills, etc. -- showing that they are independent financially and food-wise. This is important where a working lover, roommate, or landlord's income could make an otherwise eligible applicant "too rich" for food stamps.

Relatives living in the same household -- such as grown children living with parents, or even brothers, sisters, grandchildren, etc. -- are automatically assumed to be in a common household for Food stamp purposes, even if they can prove that they do not share food!

But there's one important exception to this mandatory counting together of extended family members' incomes. Where the relative(s) with whom the applicant lives (and whose incomes, counted together, would make the applicant "too rich") are over age 60 or disabled themselves, both parties can submit notes and other documentation that they don't share food. If they can show this, their finances must be considered separately -- allowing the needy person to qualify for food stamps.

Food Stamps

Food stamps are available to all persons whose incomes are low enough, without regard to whether they are disabled. But, unlike others, when determining whether they meet the income requirements, disabled and elderly persons can deduct from their gross income the amounts they spend on rent, utilities, and out-of-pocket medical expenses, including transportation to medical care. Childless, nondisabled persons under 50 can get only three months' worth of food stamps per year.

Those on Supplemental Security Income (SSI) cannot receive food stamps in California or Wisconsin. This is because the value of the food stamps they would ordinarily get has already been included in the higher-than-normal amounts paid to SSI recipients in those states. On the other hand, those who get Social Security Disability Income (SSDI) in California and Wisconsin can get food stamps.

Food stamps have traditionally been issued as coupons (they look like Monopoly money!), but most areas have now switched to automatic teller machine (ATM) benefits cards, which are used to purchase food at participating groceries (see box). Persons receiving welfare -- Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, General Assistance, or Home Relief -- usually get ATM cards with both their cash and food stamp values encrypted. Those who are too ill to shop for themselves can register the person who shops for them with the welfare office, either when they first apply or later.

To apply for food stamps, visit the welfare (not the Social Security) office. Bring with you all your "official" papers: birth certificates; marriage, divorce, separation, and child-support papers; children's report cards; proof of income; bank account statements; rent or mortgage receipts; utility and real estate tax receipts; proof of out-of-pocket medical, childcare, and babysitting expenses; proof of actual child support paid out; and letters from Social Security, the Veterans Administration, and welfare or pension programs stating your benefit amounts and disability status.

To be eligible for food stamps, you may have a maximum (per household) of $2,000 in assets ($3,000 if you are over 60 or disabled), plus a lived-in home of any value and a vehicle worth no more than $4,650 (no upper limit on the value of a car that is used to transport the disabled or elderly though). In addition, your household must have a gross income of no more than 130 percent of the poverty level.

The above limits do not apply, however, to members of the household who are elderly or disabled. The presence of even one person who is over 60 or who has been declared fully disabled by Social Security, the Veterans Administration, welfare, or Medicaid renders the household an "elderly household" in food stamp parlance. What this means is that the whole household, as a unit, is treated as elderly or disabled, even if only one member actually meets that definition.

It's not as confusing as it sounds. All the figures you need to compare your own household eligibility are set forth in Tables 1 through 4. [NOTE: The poverty levels for households of different sizes, and the other amounts shown in the tables, are recomputed every September. The amounts shown in the tables are those in effect as of September 1999.]

 How the Benefits Card Works
A system called EBT, for Electronic Benefits Transfer, is being phased in throughout the country to allow recipients of food stamps and public assistance to use automatic teller machine (ATM) debit cards to obtain their benefits.

When you receive your card, you will be issued a four-digit PIN, or Personal Identification Number. To use your food stamps, do your grocery shopping as usual and take your purchases to the checkout counter, where there is a point-of-sale terminal for the cards. You or the cashier will swipe the card through the machine, you will enter the PIN number and press "Enter," and then you will tell the cashier how much money to enter or will enter it yourself.

You may also use the card at ATM machines in banks and elsewhere to withdraw money from your cash benefit account. You must put the card in the machine, enter your PIN, press "Withdrawal," press "Checking," and enter the amount of cash you want.

The food stamp benefit account may be used to purchase food only; other items may be purchased with the cash benefit account. If you use both accounts in the same store, you will need to swipe the card and enter your PIN twice.

Non-ATM transactions are free, with no limit on how often the card is used. You are allowed four free ATM withdrawals each month; for each extra ATM use $.85 will be deducted from your cash benefits account. NOTE: Some ATMs, check cashers, and food stores charge a fee for providing cash withdrawals. Check beforehand to be sure you are using one that does not.


Keep your PIN secret. Anyone who has your card and knows your PIN has access to your benefits, and any benefits stolen that way cannot be replaced.

  • If you have trouble remembering the PIN that you have been given, change it to something that is easy for you to remember (see below).
  • Keep your card in a safe place.
  • Do not write on or scratch the black magnetic stripe on the back of the card.
  • Do not put your card near televisions, stereos, VCRs, computers, or anything that may be magnetic.
  • Check the balances in your cash benefits and food stamp accounts before you go shopping so that you know how much you have to spend.
  • The toll-free Customer Service number, (888) 329-6399, operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can use it to get a replacement card if yours is bent, damaged, lost, or stolen; to change your PIN; to check your balance; to ask questions; and to report any problems.
    The above information was taken from the June 1999 issue of RSVP/ACES Newsletter, published by the Advocacy Counseling for Entitlement Services (ACES) project of the Community Service Society of New York's Retired and Senior Volunteer Program (RSVP). ACES volunteer Benefits Counselor Marty Kraushar is available at Body Positive Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays from 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. Call (212) 566-7333 for an appointment.
  • How To Compute Food Stamp Eligibility

    To compute Food stamp eligibility for a household without a disabled or elderly person:

  • Find your household's total gross income by adding together income from all sources, including welfare, SSDI, SSI, VA payments, bank interest, pensions, actually received child support, and 80 percent of total wages.

  • Check that gross income is less than the amount shown for your household size in Table 1. If it is more than that amount, your family is ineligible.

  • Deduct Standard Deduction (see Table 2).

  • Deduct Shelter Deduction (see Table 3) or amount actually paid for rent and utilities, whichever is less.

  • Deduct actually paid childcare and babysitting costs and actually paid-out child support payments.

  • Do not deduct out-of-pocket medical expenses, even if they are over $35 monthly.

  • Subtract balance from amount shown for family size in Table 4.

  • If result is less than $10, round up to $10.

  • Final balance is your family's Food stamp allowance.

    To compute Food stamp eligibility for a household with a person who is over the age of 60 or who has been declared fully disabled by Social Security, the Veterans Administration, welfare, or Medicaid:

  • Find your household's total gross income by adding together income from all sources, including welfare, SSDI, SSI, VA payments, bank interest, pensions, actually received child support, and 80 percent of total wages.

  • Ignore income limits in Table 1.

  • Deduct Standard Deduction (see Table 2).

  • Deduct actually paid childcare and babysitting expenses and actually paid- out child support payments.

  • Deduct actually paid-out out-of-pocket medical costs over $35 monthly, including the cost of transportation to medical care, Medicare and health insurance pre- miums, and amounts paid for over-the-counter drugs.

  • Deduct shelter costs (rent, mortgage, utilities, and taxes) that exceed 50 per- cent of what is left.

  • Subtract the resulting balance from the amount shown for your family size in Table 4).

  • If result is less than $10, round up to $10.

  • Final balance is your family's Food stamp allowance.

    School Lunch, School Breakfast, and Summer Food Service Programs

    Anyone with children in school and with income below the 130 percent of the poverty level (see Table 1) -- regardless of disability or assets -- is eligible for free meals at school for their children. Actually paid childcare and babysitting costs are deducted from gross income before it is compared to the eligibility level. Children from families with incomes below the amounts 185 percent of the poverty level (see Table 5) are eligible for reduced-price meals.

    Apply at the children's school office -- not the welfare office -- for the School Lunch and School Breakfast Programs. Bring the same items required for food stamps. While you're there, or at least before school lets out for the summer, ask about the sites and application procedures for the Summer Food Service Program.

    Women's, Infants' and Children's (WIC) Program

    WIC provides a broad menu of services for women and their young children: health counseling and screening; immunizations; some well-child, pregnancy, and post-partum care; and referrals and information. WIC also offers vouchers, redeemable at community grocery stores, for the purchase of specialty food products -- typically milk, formula, baby food, pasta, cereal, and peanut butter. The value of the vouchers depends on family size.

    Eligible persons are pregnant, postpartum, and nursing women and families with at least one child under the age of 5. At least one person in the family must be "at health or nutritional risk." Being HIV-positive qualifies as "at risk," and applicants need not be disabled.

    To be eligible financially, your gross total family income must be below the 185 percent of poverty (see Table 5). No deductions are allowed, but there is no limit on the amount of assets you may have.

    Apply at the maternal and child health division of your county or city health department -- not at the welfare office. Bring the same items required for food stamps. Because of funding shortages, applicants in some areas may be placed on a waiting list or turned away.

    Temporary Emergency Food Assistance Program (TEFAP)

    For those old enough to remember, this is the widely publicized "free cheese" program begun at the height of the Reagan recession in the early 1980s. The program provides free bags of groceries, and yes, it still includes cheese, as well as other "surplus" food items like pasta, beans, canned goods, dried milk, and the like, plus industry donations.

    Recipients must already be on welfare, SSI, food stamps, or Medicaid. They need not be disabled or raising children, and there is no assets test.

    Food parcels are distributed through community food banks, churches, and other not-for-profit agencies. To find out who handles distribution in your area, ask the food stamp staff at your local welfare office. Then call the community distributing agency to find out when and where to apply and to pick up your food parcels. To apply, bring photo identification and proof -- letters, forms, ID card -- that you are currently receiving welfare, SSI, food stamps, or Medicaid.

    Child and Adult Care Food Program;
    Charitable Institutions Program;
    Soup Kitchen/Food Bank Program

    This grab bag of programs provides free food to not-for-profit agencies that run group homes provide food or meals are provided, pantry food parcel distribution programs, homebound meal delivery programs, and meals service for those in daycare/respite programs. In some cases, agencies can receive administrative and even limited financial support, and it is the not-for-profit, charitable status of the applicant agency, rather than the financial or disability status of individual clients, that determines eligibility for benefits.

    The programs are run through state-level food distribution offices. To locate the state offices handling them (separate offices in all but the smallest states), contact the AIDS Nutrition Services Alliance, 1400 Eye Street NW, Suite 1220, Washington, D.C. 20005; (202) 289-5650, e-mail This organization can provide local agencies (but not individuals) with names, addresses, and telephone numbers of state food program agencies, and it also offers other valuable services to community groups. :

    Author of the AIDS Benefits Handbook (Yale University Press), Thomas P. McCormack has many years' experience as a benefits expert and advocate, particularly for people with HIV/AIDS. He now works with the Title II Community AIDS National Network and is a frequent contributor to Body Positive.

    Table 1. Monthly Gross Income Limits for Food Stamps for Non-Disabled Households; Income Limits for Free School and Summer Meals
    Household SizeMaximum Income
    1 person$893
    2 persons1,199
    3 persons1,504
    4 persons1,810
    5 persons2,115
    6 persons2,421

    Table 2. Standard Monthly Food Stamp Deduction
    JurisdictionStandard Deduction
    Lower 48 states and D.C.$134
    Virgin Islands118

    Table 3. Maximum Shelter Deductions for Households Without Elderly or Disabled Members
    JurisdictionMaximum Deduction
    Lower 48 states and D.C.$275
    Virgin Islands203
    Homeless anywhere143

    Table 4. Maximum Food Stamp Allowance by Family Size for All Households
    Family SizeMaximum Allowance
    1 person$127
    2 persons234
    3 persons335
    4 persons426
    5 persons506
    6 persons607

    Table 5. Income Limits for Reduced-Price School and Summer Meals; WIC Health and Food Benefits
    Family SizeMaximum Income
    1 person$1,271
    2 persons1,705
    3 persons2,140
    4 persons2,575
    5 persons3,009
    6 persons3,444

    Back to the October 1999 Issue of Body Positive Magazine.

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    This article was provided by Body Positive. It is a part of the publication Body Positive.