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Quick Tips For Shopping On Food Stamps In California

The California Food Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or CalFresh, supports families and individuals in maintaininga nutritious diet during difficult financial periods. In the past, support was given via paper food stamps. However, in1996, the federal welfare reform entitled the Personal Responsibility Work Reconciliation Act identified food stamp couponsas too expensive to manufacture, distribute and destroy. As a result, today’s benefits are provided through an ElectronicBenefits Transfer (EBT) card, which works similarly to debit cards and allows for the most efficient and cost-effectivedistribution of federal benefits. Although this program provides assistance to many residents, it can be difficult to determinethe most effective way to use your benefits once you begin receiving assistance. To help you navigate the shopping processwith your SNAP benefits, California-Assistance.org has compiled a list of easy-to-use tips for shopping with food assistancebenefits.

Planning Is Power

Plan ahead of your shopping trip to get the most from your SNAP benefits. Start with knowing your monthly SNAP balance. Youcan always check your balance by phone or online, or review your latest receipt for your EBT balance at the bottom. Goingto a state office once a month to pick up your coupons is a thing of the past. Some retailers even allow you to use yourEBT card to purchase groceries online, so you do not even have to leave your house.

Because benefits are electronically deposited once a month on an EBT card, the time you can spend budgeting for meal planningis maximized. Use this budget to plan how often you will go to the grocery store. Using a weekly meal planner can help youto utilize your benefits efficiently by reducing waste. Knowing how much you still have each month can help you plan anyadditional shopping trips as needed. Be sure to make a shopping list with that balance in mind and stick to it while atthe store to avoid unnecessary overspending.

The luxury of getting your benefits on a debit card will also assist in helping you reduce money spent at the grocery storebecause you cannot actually see the money. Oftentimes, using paper money causes you to spend more because it is right therein your hands for you to use. Eating before you go shopping can also help you avoid those extra purchases that lead to overspending.

Do Your Research

Before you go to the grocery store, call or check online to be aware of what food items in each nutritional category areapproved under the SNAP program. SNAP allows only approved items to be purchased with your benefits. Note that non-fooditems do not qualify. Additionally, hot food items, liquor and vitamins cannot be purchased with food stamp benefits. Whenat the store, check each expiration date to be sure the product will last until you get around to using it. Grabbing itemsfrom the back can often get you a better sell-by date since grocery stores usually put the items with less time at the front.

California EBT cards can be used at more than 15,000 businesses and over 54,000 ATMs in California. Be sure to research allthe grocery stores in your area that accept EBT payments. To find these stores, you can use the USDA retailer locator. Thisway, you can find the best prices in your community, and remember that certain farmers markets also accept EBT payments.

Compare Using The Unit Price

When you look at price stickers at the grocery store, most will include a retail price and a unit price. Using the unit pricecan help you to compare two or more items to find the most cost-effective one for you. The retail price is the amount youwill pay for that specific item, but the unit price will show how much it costs per weight. Since different products comein different sizes, you can use the unit price to compare equal amounts and see what costs less overall.

The EBT card makes checking out fast and efficient, so you don’t need to worry about holding up the checkout line like youmay have done in the past when you had to sort through paper coupons. Take as much time as you need to shop efficiently.When you checkout, just swipe your card in the card reader, enter your 4-digit PIN on the keypad and you are good to gohome and start cooking. The “chip” feature has not been implemented into EBT cards yet, so you do not have to deal withlengthy procedures associated with this security measure either.

Buy Food In Bulk

Items such as grains, beans, canned fruit and vegetables can be purchased in bulk and stored for a long period of time. Buyingin bulk is cost-effective and can assist you in building a base of items to be usedthroughout the month in a variety ofmeals. You can build other meals around these staple items using foods with a shorter shelf life, such as dairy, fresh fruitand meat. Certain foods like beans can be particularly cost-effective when purchased dry instead of canned, so make sureyou look at all your options to find the best solution based on your available funds. Here are several foods that are goodto buy in bulk to keep costs down:

  • Dry beans
  • Rice
  • Pasta
  • Canned goods (vegetables, fruit, fish, beans and more)
  • Apples
  • Potatoes
  • Meat (only when you have freezer space to keep extra portions)

Shopping at wholesale retailers like Costco and Sam’s Club is recommended when making bulk purchases. EBT cards are acceptedwith memberships at both of these stores in California. Similarly to buying in bulk, the EBT card also maximizes your fundsfor food by eliminating the possibility of losing it. In the past, food stamps that were lost could not always be replaced.Even if you lose your card, the money in your account will not be lost, as you can always request a new one. It may takeup to 10 days for a new card to be mailed to your address, however, the money will not be lost. In addition, if your cardis stolen, no one will be able to fraudulently use your EBT card without knowing the PIN.

Do Not Overlook Your Pantry

If you buy food in bulk and build up a reliable pantry with staple food items, you can rest easier each month knowing thatyour basics are all covered and that you can whip up a nutritious dinner from what you already have on hand. It might seemeasy to overlook what is already in your pantry when you are hungry and struggling for dinner ideas, but what is alreadythere can often be the most cost-effective and the simplest solution. Planning a meal around what you already have can preventyou from spending more money on a convenient purchase that might not be as healthy or as cost-effective in the long-run.

Cook Larger Portions

When you buy fresh meat or vegetables, make sure you do not waste anything by risking letting it go bad. You can cook doubleor triple the amount you actually need and then freeze the leftovers for easy reheating at a later date. That ensures yourfresh food does not go bad before you are able to use it all in the days after your grocery store shopping. Cooking largerportions also helps you to plan your meals and to spend less time each week cooking and cleaning. And, as an added bonus,cooking once minimizes your utility usage to save you even more money each month on your bills.

Learn From SNAP-ED

SNAP-ED is the educational nutrition program offered by the USDA to assist SNAP recipients in identifying and learning moreabout nutritious meal options and purchases. Get meal planning advice, recipes and other tips in-person at classes and inone-on-one meetings with your local CalFresh eligibility specialist. CalFresh also offers an online mini-course through EatFresh thatcan help you learn new recipes to cook tasty and healthy meals on a budget. The CalFresh YouTube channel offers plenty ofinstructional videos, too.

Restaurant Options

CalFresh EBT cards can also be used at certain qualifying restaurants if you meet the specific conditions that allow youto purchase meals, including your age, disability status or homelessness. Only certain counties in California allow thisoption to qualified SNAP recipients, but restaurants can offer another option for meeting your nutrition needs if you meetthe eligibility requirements. And thanks to the EBT debit card, you do not have to worry about the stigma associated withusing paper coupons when purchasing food at the cashier.

Holiday Options

The holidays can seem like a tough time to make your budget work for you, but you do not have to overspend just to enjoythat time with family or friends. Consider a potluck meal together or sharing brunch instead of dinner. Both options arecheaper and can help everyone enjoy the holidays together more easily.