SNAP differs from other USDA nutrition assistance programs in that it is an in-kind program, providing monthly benefits paid by some means other than cash (e.g., an Electronic Benefit Transfer [EBT] card or a voucher) to eligible low-income families.1 The goals of the program are to improve food security and access to a healthy diet by increasing the food purchasing power of low-income households, enabling them to obtain a more nutritious diet by preparing food at home. The purpose and goals of SNAP as legislated by Congress on January 3, 2012, are shown in Box 1-1. Additional detail on the history, background, and goals of the program is in Chapter 2.

The EBT card can be used to purchase food from authorized food retailers; benefits also may be used to purchase seeds and plants with which to produce food. With certain exceptions, including alcohol and tobacco products and foods eaten in a store, the program does not directly influence what foods can be purchased using SNAP benefits. To be eligible to sell foods to SNAP participants, a store must meet one of two criteria. First, it must offer (on a continuous basis) at least three varieties of qualifying foods in each of four food categories, including perishable foods in at least two of the categories:

•   meat, poultry, or fish;

•   bread or cereal;

•   vegetables or fruit; and

•   dairy products

The second criterion is that more than 50 percent of total retail sales in the store must be from the sale of SNAP-eligible staple foods.

SNAP allotments are based on the Thrifty Food Plan (TFP), a minimal-cost model food plan for a healthy diet that is based on the cost of purchasing foods consumed by individuals in four age-gender groups: a male and female aged 19-50, a child aged 6-8, and a child aged 9-11. As noted by Carlson et al. (2007), the plan reflects the recommendations of the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (DGA). The amount of individual allotments varies because the calculation of benefit levels is based on the concept that SNAP allotments are intended to supplement, not serve as the sole resource for, food purchases. Households with a net income below 100 percent of the federal poverty level qualify for a benefit equal to the maximum amount for that household size minus 30 percent of their net income. However, rising


1For simplicity, the form in which SNAP benefits are provided is referred to throughout this report as an EBT card.

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