Yes, There Is A Free Lunch!
Food Stamps, School Lunches, Food Packets, and Other Food Assistance
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.
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 To Compute Food Stamp Eligibility
To compute Food stamp eligibility for a household without a disabled or elderly person:
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:
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;
|Table 1. Monthly Gross Income Limits for Food Stamps for Non-Disabled Households; Income Limits for Free School and Summer Meals|
|Household Size||Maximum Income|
|Table 2. Standard Monthly Food Stamp Deduction|
|Lower 48 states and D.C.||$134|
|Table 3. Maximum Shelter Deductions for Households Without Elderly or Disabled Members|
|Lower 48 states and D.C.||$275|
|Table 4. Maximum Food Stamp Allowance by Family Size for All Households|
|Family Size||Maximum Allowance|
|Table 5. Income Limits for Reduced-Price School and Summer Meals; WIC Health and Food Benefits|
|Family Size||Maximum Income|