The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), a government program formerly known as food stamps, is designed to help low-income Americans buy nutritious food.
However, not every eligible food item is what you’d call super-nutritious. For example, you can use SNAP benefits to buy a fountain soft drink — basically a glass of sugar water — at a supermarket or convenience store.
You can get a bag of potato chips but not a rotisserie chicken. It’s OK to buy Red Vines licorice twists, but not a cup of red lentil soup from the deli.
SNAP benefits are delivered as a monthly stipend to a special account. Recipients use an electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card at the checkout. Some of what they’re able to buy might surprise you. Here’s a look.
1. Fruit trees
Yep. SNAP benefits will cover the cost not just of fruit trees but also seeds and/or plants that will produce food for humans. That includes those designed to grow spices for cooking, such as cumin or mustard. Ornamental plants are not eligible.
When it comes time to plan that garden, make sure you have or can borrow the things you’ll need. SNAP benefits can’t be used for stuff like soil or shovels.
2. Ice cream
As long as you buy it in a form not intended for on-premises consumption, such as in a carton, ice cream is a SNAP-eligible item. But SNAP won’t cover the cost of a cone or cup of ice cream meant to be eaten on the spot.
3. Produce from a farmers market
You can use your EBT card at any participating farmers market or even with a farmer who sells directly to consumers — so long as they participate in the SNAP program.
To find participating markets and farmers, use the government’s SNAP retailer locator.
Cold drinks in general (including fountain drinks and slushies) may be purchased with SNAP benefits if the items are intended for home versus in-store consumption. (It’s okay to take a few swigs while you’re waiting to pay though.)
Hot drinks, however, are not allowed under SNAP rules. These include beverages like tea, coffee and lattes.
5. Gift baskets
Baskets, tins, stockings and other items with eligible food contents that make up at least 50% of the price tag can be purchased with EBT cards. However, it would not be allowed if the basket contained any ineligible items, such as alcohol.
The cost of the container itself is included in the calculation. For example, a stuffed animal packaged with a candy cane wouldn’t be approved for SNAP purchase because the value of the “food” is clearly lower than the value of the toy. However, a basket filled with eligible food items plus one small ornament would likely be available for purchase with SNAP.
6. Live lobsters
Generally speaking, live animals are not on the approved list for those using SNAP benefits. An exception is fish/shellfish, including lobsters, crabs and clams.
Another exception is animals that are “slaughtered prior to delivery.” However, you can’t use your EBT to pay for the cost of slaughtering and processing.
7. Junk food
“Snack foods” are on the approved list. Even though the government wants us to “make healthy choices,” it stops short of demanding that we buy kale chips instead of Flamin’ Hot Cheetos.
8. Cooking wine
You can’t buy a bottle of cabernet with your EBT card. However, cooking wine and wine vinegar are not considered to be alcoholic beverages. Neither is vanilla extract, even though it’s defined by the FDA as containing at least 35% alcohol.
But you can’t use your benefits to buy low-alcohol/non-alcoholic beer, dealcoholized wine, bitters, liquor-filled chocolate candy or any other item that contains alcohol.
9. Energy drinks
Can energy drinks be purchased with SNAP benefits? The answer is: sometimes.
If the go-go juice has a “nutrition facts” label, the Food and Drug Administration considers it a food item. Those that have “supplement facts” labels aren’t eligible.
Both block and crushed ice are eligible to be purchased through SNAP. Before you complain about people too lazy to make their own ice cubes, remember that ice could be essential during power failures to keep food from spoiling.
11. Bottled water
Yes, you can buy bottled water with SNAP benefits. In some areas (hello, Phoenix!), the tap water may not kill you but it sure doesn’t taste too good.
However, it’s more cost-effective to filter your tap water. Filtering pitchers are often seen in thrift stores and Buy Nothing Facebook groups. You’d have to replace the filter cartridges now and then, but over the long haul, this might be cheaper than buying water by the case.