Using Government Food Programs

The Food Stamp Program, WIC, and the National School Lunch Program are the most popular government assistance programs because they allow you to use an electronic benefits transfer card (which resembles a debit card) to purchase core grocery items or to have your children receive meals at school. Without these services, individuals and families in need would go hungry.

The Food Stamp Program

Eligibility for food stamps is surprisingly generous. In fact, many first-year teachers in urban and rural areas (and yes, these are professionals with four-year college degrees) would qualify under the eligibility rules. Here's what those rules look like in general, although they do have several exceptions:

  • Assets. Up to $2,000 in savings. Note that the value of your car or other vehicle may be treated as an asset, or it may not. Each situation is treated differently, but unless you have a paid-off car that's worth quite a bit, chances are, your car won't be treated as an asset.

  • Income. Gross (before-tax) income of $1,799 for a family of three, although this amount can vary from state to state and also changes with time.

  • Work. Every adult, able-bodied member of the family must be working or looking for work.

Food stamps are supposed to be a means of getting through a difficult economic time, but you are allowed to have some money in savings. So as you start to get back on your feet, begin putting a small, but regular, deposit into your savings account.

In addition to these income and savings requirements, you will be asked to register for work (if you're not working already), participate in work-training programs, and accept work if it's offered to you. At that point, your benefits will be reduced or eliminated. To apply for food stamps, call or visit your nearest state food-stamp office.

Food stamps are granted by a formulate that starts with your net monthly household income. More or fewer food stamps may be granted based on whether the household has experienced excessive medical bills or high housing costs, or if they pay a babysitter or child support, and so on.

In general, however, an individual receives about $155 in food stamps for the first person in the household, and the scale then slides from $129 for the second person to $117 for the ninth person in the household. Benefits begin the day you apply.

Although the food stamps program is meant for U.S. citizens, some legally admitted aliens are also eligible. In some states, people applying for food stamps or WIC benefits may also be offered the opportunity to register to vote.

Women, Infants, and Children (WIC)

WIC is a service that offers food distribution (through vouchers that are accepted at many stores and farmer's markets), nutrition counseling, and health-care referrals to pregnant, breastfeeding, and non-breastfeeding new mothers who qualify under income guidelines.

The program also offers health-care referrals and food distribution to infants and children of mothers who qualify. The program has been shown to be effective in raising newborn birth weight, lowering infant mortality, and reducing Medicaid costs for pregnant women and their children.

Most areas, even small towns, have a WIC office. Check your local phone book for a location and phone number. Qualifying for WIC is easier than for food stamps.

In most states, your household income must not exceed $1,575 per month for one person, and you're allowed about an additional $536 in income per month for each person in your household. The income levels are higher for Alaska and Hawaii because food and housing costs more in those two states.

Generally, if you're eligible for food stamps, Medicaid, and other federal-funding programs, you're also eligible for WIC.

The Nutrition Program for the Elderly (NPE)

Like a food-stamp program especially for those age 60 and over, this program provides meals to the elderly, regardless of income. Meals may be offered at a senior citizen's center or may be delivered to home-bound residents (frequently called Meals on Wheels). Talk to someone at your local senior citizen's center or call your local Social Security office.

Free Lunch Programs

Through the federal government, kids really can get a free lunch. Like with WIC, most kids who live in households that are eligible for food stamps or Medicaid are automatically eligible for free lunches, reduced-price lunches, free breakfasts, and/or free milk programs. You can contact your child's school to apply.

The National School Lunch Program provides free or reduced-cost lunches, after-school snacks, and nutrition education. The School Breakfast Program provides breakfasts to students who arrive early enough in the morning to require this service. The Summer Food Service Program continues meals and snacks to low-income children during the summer break from school.

For children who don't qualify for other meal programs, the Special Milk Program provides milk to children who qualify.

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