Everything You Need to Know about Food Stamps (FAQ)
Authored By: Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA)
In this article we’ll talk about:
- Applying for food stamps
- How long the application takes
- Work requirements
- Changes to income
- What you can do if you have problems with your food stamps
The official name for food stamps is SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). It is a federal nutrition program that helps you stretch your food budget and buy healthy food. The purpose of food stamps is to give eligible people extra support for a healthy diet and a food budget.
You get SNAP benefits each month on a plastic card called an EBT (electronic benefits transfer) card. The EBT card works like a debit card.
If you apply and get SNAP, you will not be taking benefits away from someone else, and you won’t be using coupons at the grocery store checkout line.
Every person has the right to apply for food stamps. If you are denied this right, you should request a Fair Hearing. If you feel that you were denied food stamp benefits for the wrong reason, you can request a fair hearing.
There are guidelines around income, assets, and household members that determine eligibility. You can learn more about the guidelines for food stamps. But, every household is different, and there may be exceptions to the guidelines. The only way to be sure if you qualify is to apply.
How to apply
You can apply for food stamps:
- At your local Office of Public Assistance (OPA)
- By calling the Montana Public Assistance Helpline at 1-888-706-1535 to find your nearest OPA
- Online at www.apply.mt.gov
- Email firstname.lastname@example.org for an application
If you can’t apply on your own, you may have another person apply on your behalf. You’ll need to name that person as your authorized representative in writing.
Return the application to your local Office of Public Assistance (OPA) as soon as possible. If you apply online, your application will go to OPA automatically.
It can take up to thirty days for your food stamps to start. The sooner you put in your application, the sooner you will get food stamps.
You can ask if you are eligible for expedited service, which means you can get food stamps faster. If you are eligible for expedited service, your application must be processed in 7 days. You may qualify for expedited service if:
- Your household makes less than $150 a month in gross income and owns less than $100 in liquid assets,
- You or someone in your household is a migrant or seasonal farm worker and your household owns less than $100 in liquid assets; or,
- Your household’s combined monthly income and liquid assets is less than your monthly rent (or mortgage) and utilities.
What happens after I apply for food stamps?
When you turn in your application for food stamps, the OPA will contact you to schedule an interview. Most interviews are over the phone, but you can ask for one in-person.
Ask the worker what you need for your interview. Things will often be easier if you are prepared for the interview.
If you need special arrangements made for an interview, you must ask for them when you turn in your application.
If you are an able bodied adult between the ages of 16 and 59, you’ll need to register for work to get food stamps. There are some exceptions.
In most cases, you must work at least 20 hours a week. If you fall below 20 hours a week, you must report that change to your caseworker. Work can include activities like school, vocational rehabilitation, job search, and more.
If your income increases while you are getting food stamps, you must report the change to your caseworker. Your benefits can be reduced if your income goes over a certain level.
To protect yourself from the OPA charging you with an overpayment, you should report any increase in income to the OPA as soon as possible.
An overpayment is when the OPA pays you benefits that you were not eligible for.
You will still have to repay an overpayment, even if the OPA is at fault or because you accidently overlooked some information. You may need to pay back the full amount of the overpayment. If you still get food stamps, it will come out of your future benefits. OPA will take out 10% of your monthly payments, or $10 a month, whichever is greater.
If you intentionally lied about important information, you could be disqualified from getting food stamps. You will also have to pay back any overpayment. If you are no longer on SNAP, then you will have to pay back the overpayment in another way. For example, cash, or your tax return, or another payment plan.
If you don't agree with a decision on your application, benefit status, payments, or overpayments, you can request a Fair Hearing. If you don’t understand something about your food stamps, you can ask for a Fair Hearing. A Fair Hearing is an informal hearing where you can appeal a decision the Office of Public Assistance (OPA) makes about your food stamps or other public benefits.
Every person has the right to apply for food stamps. If you are denied this right, you should request a Fair Hearing. If you feel that you were denied food stamp benefits for the wrong reason, you should request a fair hearing. You can learn more about what you can do if you lose your public benefits.
Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free legal help to eligible clients who have problems with their food stamps. Learn more about how to apply for free legal help in Montana.
- The State Bar Lawyer Referral Service may provide you with contact information for attorneys who provide the type of assistance you are seeking, for a fee. You can contact the State Bar Lawyer Referral Service at (406) 449-6577 or montanabar.org.
- Montana Legal Services Association (MLSA) provides free civil, non-criminal legal help to eligible clients. Learn more about how to apply for free legal help in Montana.
- If you qualify for help from MLSA, you may be able to get free legal advice from a volunteer attorney by email using Ask Karla.