Stretching Your Budget With Food Stamps
With the high cost of living in Los Angeles County, it's no wonder so many people on a disability income struggle to make ends meet.
Usually, financial survival hinges on one's ability to piece together various resources and benefits that will allow you to meet your basic needs. This "resource patchwork quilt" usually consists of resources such as disability income, housing assistance grants, health care assistance programs, drug assistance programs, bus passes and food bank assistance.
One lesser-known "patch" that might be added to your resource quilt is the Food Stamp program: one of the more underutilized public benefits available to individuals with limited resources.
What Are Food Stamps?
Food Stamps are "coupons" with a dollar value that can be exchanged for food.
The Food Stamp program is designed to allow people with limited resources to increase their nutrition and free up cash resources to be used for other necessities such as rent and utilities.
They can be redeemed at a local grocery. In Los Angeles County, approximately 8,000 sites accept them.
Who Is Eligible?
Food Stamp eligibility is fairly straightforward.
If you are less than 60 years old, you must be able to demonstrate that your total assets are below $2,000 ($3,000 if you are over age 60). Common items that count as assets are cash, savings, stocks, bonds and retirement accounts. Exemptions from the $2,000 limit include the property you live in and a burial plot.
You are also allowed to own one vehicle. The vehicle cannot be worth more than $4,650. Exceptions to this rule are made, if you live in your car, use the vehicle as part of your work (such as a gardener) or if you or someone in your household is disabled. In such cases, your vehicle can be worth any amount.
Income is also considered when determining Food Stamp eligibility. In 2002, an individual living in a single household must have a monthly income below $931 to qualify for assistance. The maximum Food Stamp benefit for a single individual in L.A. County is $135 per month. The amount of Food Stamps you receive will be based on several factors, including what type of income you receive, how much you pay in rent and utilities, and how much you pay in out-of-pocket medical expenses.
Other Eligibility Factors
Immigration status also impacts Food Stamp eligibility.
You must be either a U.S. citizen or a Legal Permanent Resident to qualify. If you are not a citizen or Legal Permanent Resident but have children who are, your children may be eligible to receive Food Stamp assistance.
Supplemental Security Income (SSI) recipients are not eligible to receive Food Stamps. This is because California has calculated a food allowance into your monthly SSI check. Also, individuals who have a drug-related felony conviction after Jan. 1, 1997 are permanently ineligible for Food Stamps (this regulation is being reviewed and may change in the future).
You may also be permanently ineligible for Food Stamps if you have been caught selling Food Stamps worth $500 or more.
How Do Food Stamps Work?
Once you are found eligible to receive Food Stamps, you will be issued a white card, which is called a Permanent Issuance or PIC card.
You will also be assigned a Food Stamp outlet location near your home. Each month you can present your PIC card at your Food Stamp outlet in order to pick up your monthly Food Stamps. It is important to remember that your Food Stamps are similar to cash and cannot be replaced if lost or stolen.
Food Stamps cannot be used to purchase non-food items, such as cleaning and paper products, pet food, diapers, alcohol or tobacco.
Food Stamps are also accepted at certified farmer's markets and can be used to purchase seeds or plants to grow your own food.
How to Apply
To apply for Food Stamps, you must apply in-person through the local Department of Social Services (DPSS) office.
It is important to note that not all DPSS offices process Food Stamp applications. A Benefits counselor at AIDS Project Los Angeles can identify the office nearest to your home.
A DPSS eligibility worker will work with you to complete several forms in order to assess your eligibility. You will need to provide identification, proof of your income and assets, rent receipts, vehicle registration and out-of-pocket medical expense receipts. If you don't have all of your documents at the time you apply, you will be allowed 10 days to provide the necessary documents.
If you are experiencing HIV symptoms that make it difficult to work, it is important that you notify your eligibility worker so that your case will be processed as an "unemployable disabled" applicant. This will allow you to avoid having to participate in the employment programs that apply to non-disabled applicants.
To verify that your HIV condition prevents you from working, you will be examined every six months by a county health care worker through the WATTS Mobile Clinic. Be prepared to show the clinic worker a note or diagnosis form from your doctor verifying your HIV status, as well as a list of any medications, treatments, complications or side effects you are experiencing.
Once your application is processed, you will receive a letter confirming your eligibility and explaining how much Food Stamp income you are eligible for. Food Stamps applications should be processed within 30 days.
In cases of emergency, Food Stamps can be issued within three days. To qualify for emergency Food Stamps, you must prove that you are at risk of losing housing or utility service, or have less than $150 in gross income per month.
The Food Stamp program is something that might help you to stretch your monthly income. If you think that you may be eligible, contact an APLA Benefits Counselor at (213) 201-1472.
This article was provided by AIDS Project Los Angeles. It is a part of the publication Positive Living.