Previously, we walked through the factors that determine how much food stamp assistance you receive. We talked about different types of income, and about deductions, and how much you are expected to contribute to your own grocery budget. We also previously talked about what kinds of food you can get with your benefits, and how to really make them work hard for you. So now that you have food stamps, let’s take a look at where you can spend them.
Where not to spend food stamps
As their name implies, food stamps are used to buy food. That is the simplest way to look at it. However, not all food is equal. For example, food stamps cannot be used at restaurants, even though they sell food. In general, any food that qualifies for meals tax is ineligible. There are some exceptions, though, which we will explore in the next post in this series.
The vast majority of food stamps are spent at grocery stores and convenience stores. Due to the higher prices that are generally charged at convenience stores, I highly recommend avoiding them when possible. I understand that most parents will be most concerned with getting food into their children’s bellies as their top priority, and rightly so. Any food is better than no food. But it is possible to feed your children very well on a food stamp budget if you have a kitchen. I realize that not everyone is fortunate enough to do so, but I imagine that most of my readers are.
We all have different opinions on what a good diet means, but for the purposes of this article, I will use a broad definition. I think we can all agree that the best foods are those that are grown locally, grown organically, minimally processed, and assembled into meals with love. I also think we can all agree that sugar, high fructose corn syrup, trans fats, most preservatives, and artificial colors and flavors don’t have much place in a healthy diet. Now some may have religious prohibitions against pork, some may be vegetarian, some may be paleo. I think you will find that no matter how you define the specifics of a healthy diet, my ideas here will work for you.
Yes, you CAN buy local
First, I have to confess that I am very blessed to live in a rich agricultural location. All of the New England states rank very highly on the Locavore Index and I live in NH just ten minutes from the VT border. That means I have a lot of places to choose from when buying my food. I realize that others may not have the same variety, but hopefully everyone does have some kind of choice for where they buy their food.
One of my favorite places to buy food is the farmer’s market. Some markets have a matching program for food stamp recipients, and if yours does, I highly recommend taking advantage of it. My local market is open twice a week, and each day you go, you can match the first $10 of food stamps you use. Here is how it works. When markets are set up to accept debit and credit cards, they can also arrange to accept food stamp cards. They will charge your card for the amount you select and give you tokens to spend at any of the vendors that sell food stamp eligible items. Food stamp tokens have a different stamp on them than debit/credit card tokens. Here is a photo of the food stamp tokens from my local market (shown with some pocket change for comparison).
Some markets may have a different system for doing this, but this is how mine does it. When you go to the customer service tent, you ask for $10 of food stamps. They will run your card through their swiping machine and charge $10 to your balance. Then, instead of giving you $10 of tokens, they give you $20. You can spend these tokens the same day, or save them and spend them the next time you visit the market, whether that is next week, next month, or next year. I was once told that one family saved up all their extra tokens each week until they had enough to pay for a quarter cow from a rancher at the market. It was literally free food for them. If you want to take advantage of programs like this, it is important to budget your food stamps so that you have some every time you go to the market. They can only double the food stamps, not debit/credit card purchases. Be sure to ask about the details of any matching program your local market may have.
(This most recent time I visited the market, I was told that through the month of August 2016, there is no limit to how much you can double on your food stamps. So go put them to work for you while this offer is still available.)
Another great place to buy good food is a co-op. If you have a co-op near you, this is an excellent place to buy good foods that might be harder to find, such as bulk herbs and spices. My co-op has a program called Healthy Food for All that gives a free one-year membership to food stamp recipients. One wonderful thing about this is that the membership discount applies to all of your purchases at the co-op, including health and beauty, cleaning products, etc. They also have a reduced price regular membership available for food stamp recipients. Since many co-ops sell food from lots of local farmers, this is another great way to get high quality food and support your local farmers with your food stamp purchases.
Speaking of local farms, most are not equipped to accept food stamps. The equipment to do so can be cost prohibitive for many local family farmers. There are two ways to support these farmers, though. You can either purchase their foods from a local co-op or grocery store that carries them and takes food stamps, or you can spend the cash portion of your grocery budget at their farms.
Discount grocery stores are worth a stop, also. Although they often don’t have the greatest selection of healthy foods, you might be able to find a great deal on canned veggies, pasta, or other foods that you would normally buy in a packaged format anyway.
Finally, supermarkets are excellent places to buy your food. They have a great selection of all different qualities of food, and the store brands are almost always equal in quality to their name brand counterparts. To be quite honest, usually the store brand is a name brand that was just packaged with a different label and doesn’t have the marketing costs associated with it.
One specific grocery store I want to mention is Aldi. No, I have no financial connections to them. They are just one of my favorite grocery stores and I think everyone should know about them. According to their Help Wanted ads, they pay their employees well (60% higher than federal minimum wage at my local store). They have a store organic brand in addition to their non-organic store brand, they have no artificial colors, no trans fats, and no MSG, meaning that they don’t have nasty stuff in their food. Their prices are pretty consistently significantly lower than the other supermarkets in my area, and the food tastes good. They have a good quality bacon (no hormones, no nitrites/nitrates, no antibiotics, etc.), that I most recently paid $4.49 for (once, it was on sale for $3.99), butter, shredded cheese that does not have cellulose added, dry beans, canned tomatoes, and quite a selection of prepackaged gluten-free foods.
My usual grocery shopping routine is to go on a day that the farmer’s market is open and stop there first. I then go to the co-op and buy most of my meats, my cleaning supplies, organic veggies that my supermarket doesn’t carry, locally baked sourdough bread, bulk herbs and spices, fair trade coffee, and the other foods whose quality I prioritize highly. From there, I head over to Aldi and get probably half or more of what is left on my shopping list. My final stop is the supermarket, where I get everything else that is left. Using this system, I spend about $250/week on groceries for 7 people, including 3 teenagers.
What are your favorite places to buy food? Leave a note in the comments to share your favorite places.