The Food Supplement Program: An Overview

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Link to Maine Food Supplement Certification Manual (official program rules)


What is the Food Supplement Program?

The Food Supplement program helps people pay for food.  The program may also be called SNAP or Food Stamps.  You get a card which works like a debit card from a bank.  You can use the card to buy food at grocery stores.  The card is called the Pine Tree Card or an EBT card.

Most people with low income are eligible for the Food Supplement Program.  You do not have to live with children, be on welfare, or be elderly or disabled to get Food Supplement benefits.  Many people work and get these benefits.

What can I buy with my Food Supplement card?

You can use your Food Supplement card to buy food at most grocery stores and supermarkets.  You can buy almost all foods with these benefits. 

You cannot use your card to buy tobacco, soap, toothpaste, paper products, pet food, alcohol, diapers or other non-food products.  The cost of what you buy is taken from your account.  Your receipt will show you how much money you have left in your account.

How do I apply?

 You have several choices:

You may be asked to come to the office for an interview.  If you cannot get to the DHHS office for certain reasons, you can do a phone interview.  These reasons are illness, disability, no transportation, work schedule, or other hardship. 

Complete and turn in your application as soon as possible.  You will get more help during your first month if you apply early in the month.  Your DHHS worker will need to see pay stubs, proof of any other income, rent or mortgage payments, utility bills, child care bills, and any child support orders (the court order and cancelled checks).

Do I Have To Have a Photo on My Card?

You may be told that DHHS wants to put a photo of you on your card.  This is up to you.  Having your photo on the card is not required. Click here for more information about this.

How quickly will I get my Food Supplement card?  What if I need help right away?

You should get your Food Supplements within 30 days.  However, in an emergency, a new Food Supplement household can get help within 1 or 2 working days.  You must be able to prove who you are to get expedited or emergency Food Supplements. 

Your household is considered to be in an “emergency” if:

  • your gross (before taxes)  monthly income is less than $150, and liquid assets are $100 or less;  OR
  • your gross monthly income and liquid assets are less than your monthly rent/mortgage and utilities; OR
  • you are a migrant farmworker household with less than $100 in liquid assets, and you got all of your income for the month before you applied for Food Supplements from a job you no longer have, and you don’t expect to get more than $25 from any new source of income for at least the next 10 days.

If you are in an ‘emergency’, tell DHHS when you apply and ask for expedited benefits.

What is a Food Supplement household?

You apply for Food Supplement benefits as a household.  A household can be a person living alone or a group of people living together.  People in a household do not have to be related.  If people in the home buy their food together and make meals together, then everyone is in the same "household."  Your amount of Food Supplements is based on the income and assets of all members of your household.

If you do not buy your food together and do not make your meals together, then you might be separate Food Supplement households.  There can be more than one Food Supplement household living under the same roof.

If you are married and live with your spouse, you will be considered in the same household even if you do not buy and make meals together.  If you are a parent and live with children age 21 and under, you will be considered in the same household even if you do not buy and make meals together.

Can legal non-citizens get Food Supplements?

Yes, in Maine non-citizens can receive Food Supplements as long as they are living in this country legally and are otherwise eligible.  Depending on your immigration status, you may have to show that you fit within a group, such as elderly, disabled, victim of domestic violence, waiting for employment authorization, etc.  Click here for more information.

Are there some people who sometimes cannot get Food Supplements?

Yes. Under the Food Supplement rules, some people cannot get them.  However, there are often exceptions to these rules. Below is a list of kinds of people who, as a general rule, cannot get help.  Even if it looks like you may not be able to get help, apply to be sure.  You may fit within one of the exceptions to these rules and be able to get Food Supplements.  Also, even if one person in a household cannot get Food Supplements, others in the household may be able to.

Here is a partial list of people who sometimes cannot get Food Supplements:

  • People who quit work without a good reason or did not comply with the Food Supplement work requirements can be disqualified for a period of time.
  • Students enrolled half-time or more in a college, except students may be able to get food Supplements if they:
    • work 20 hours a week, or
    • are getting federal work-study money, or
    • are under 18 or over 50, or
    • are physically or mentally unable to both work and go to school, or
    • are getting TANF cash assistance, or
    • are taking care of a child under 6 or
    • are a full time student and a single parent with a child under 12 or
    • cannot find adequate child care for a child between 6 and 12, or
    • are going to school through one of the following programs: the Workforce Investment Act (through your local “one-stop” Career Center), the Trade Readjustment Act (also through your local “one-stop” Career Center), ASPIRE, Parents as Scholars, or most other state or local employment and training programs.
  • People who are on strike, unless they were eligible for Food Supplements before the strike or have been locked out or permanently replaced.
  • People between the ages of 18 and 50, who are not disabled and do not have a minor child at home.  These individuals are eligible for Food Supplement benefits for 3 months in a three year period, but there are many exceptions to this rule.  For example, if you work or volunteer part-time, you may be able to get help. For more information see:  http://www.mejp.org/content/3-month-limit-food-supplement-benefits
  • People who are in violation of their Court ordered child support.  If you have made a payment arrangement with either the Court or with DHHS, then you should be okay. If you are in violation of a DHHS set child support order, you should not lose your Food Supplement benefits.  If you do, please contact us.

Are there Food Supplement work requirements?

To register for work, you will have to sign up for a Maine JobLink account with the Maine Department of Labor and follow their rules.  It is important that you check to see if JobLink has sent information to you.  You may have to be in or get in an education and training program.  You may be penalized if you quit a job or refuse to take a suitable job that the Food Supplement office finds for you. 

You are not required to meet these requirements if: 

  • You are under 16, or are 16 or 17 and not the head of a household.
  • You are 60 or over.
  • You have a physical or mental condition that makes you unable to work.
  • You are caring for a dependent child under 6.
  • You are caring for an incapacitated child or adult.  That person does not have to live with you.
  • You are already working 30 hours a week or are earning at least 30 times the federal minimum wage a week.
  • You are a migrant or seasonal farmworker and will begin work in 30 days.
  • You are getting unemployment compensation or TANF.
  • You are a student enrolled at least half time in any school, training program or college and otherwise meet the rules for Food Supplements.
  • You are in a substance abuse treatment and rehabilitation program.

In addition, you do not have to take a job if any of these reasons apply:

  1. It pays less than the minimum wage.
  2. It subjects you to health or safety problems.
  3. You can’t get there because of transportation problems.
  4. There is a strike or lockout at the job.
  5. You would be required to join or quit a union.
  6. The work violates your religious beliefs. 

If you have been registered for work for less than 31 days, you do not have to take a job that is not the kind of work you have done before.

How many assets can I have and still get Food Supplements?

If you have a child in your Food Supplement household there is NO asset test.  Assets DO count for households without children.  Many assets are exempt.  This means DHHS will not count them.  For example, your house, furniture, tools of your trade, retirement accounts or one vehicle will not count.  If you have more than $5000 in countable assets, you may not be able to get Food Supplement benefits.  Assets that may count are such things as more than one car and recreational vehicles. Non-retirement bank accounts and property other than your home may also count.

What Income Counts?

Most income counts.  It counts whether it is from work or from sources such as child support, unemployment or Social Security. DHHS will not count all of your income.  Some income may not count at all.  In some cases, certain expenses, such as housing and utility costs will be deducted from your income.

People who get SSI, TANF, Parents as Scholars or GA (with no other income) are automatically eligible for Food Supplements.  The amount they get will depend on their situation.

Pine Tree Legal posts a Food Supplement Estimator, to help you figure out what your monthly Food Supplement should be (now available in English and Spanish).

What income does not count?

This is a partial list of income that DHHS will not count in deciding if you can get Food Supplements:

  • Anything not in the form of money, like free food, free clothing, public housing subsidies, school lunch, or WIC benefits.
  • Most “vendor payments.”  Vendor payments are money that someone who is not in your household pays directly to someone who gives your household a service.  For example, if a friend pays your rent directly to the landlord, it will not count as income.
  • Money earned by a child under 18 who is in school at least part time.
  • Money from charity or gifts that you don’t get on a regular basis if it is less than $300 in 3 months.
  • Most loans.
  • Student aid received under the federal Higher Education Act, like Pell Grants and work study.
  • Reimbursement for expenses, like reimbursement from an agency for transportation, or from your employer for the purchase of special work clothes.
  • Most work or business expenses when you are self-employed.
  • Lump sum payments you don’t get regularly like tax refunds, earned income tax credits, and retroactive benefit payments like SSI.  These payments may be treated as assets either immediately or after a period of time.

What expenses can I deduct from income?

The following amounts will be deducted from your income.  These deductions are to figure out your “net Food Supplement income.”

  • 20% of any gross earned income.
  • A standard deduction based on your household size.  The amount changes most years.
  • Medical expenses over $35 a month for elderly (over 60) and disabled household members only.
  • Dependent care costs needed for training, education or work.
  • Legally owed child support payments actually paid.
  • A portion of your shelter costs, such as rent, mortgage, heat, utilities, phone, property taxes, etc.

Does it help me get more Food Supplements if I get Fuel Assistance?

Yes.  Even if you get only $21.00 of Fuel Assistance (LIHEAP) you will likely get a lot more in Food Supplement benefits.  When in doubt, apply for Fuel Assistance.

Where to apply for Fuel Assistance

What if DHHS tells me I'm not eligible, or I don't get the amount of Food Supplements that I think I should?

If you disagree with any decision that DHHS makes about your Food Supplement benefits, you can ask for a fair hearing

You will get a written notice from DHHS telling you if you will get benefits and how much they will be.  You will also get a notice if DHHS plans to cut your benefits.

If you disagree with what DHHS says, you have 90 days from the date of the notice to ask for a fair hearing.  If your Food Supplement benefits are being cut, asking for a hearing within 10 days will stop the cut until there is a decision from a fair hearing.  You must tell DHHS that you want your benefits to continue.  If you end up losing your appeal, then you will have to repay the amount that you got during the appeal.  This repayment usually happens through a small deduction from your Food Supplement benefits if you remain eligible.

*You cannot have your benefits continue if you are at the end of your Food Supplement “certification” period.

A fair hearing is an informal meeting between you, your worker and an impartial hearing officer.  You have a right to be represented at your fair hearing by anyone you choose.  If you want legal help with your fair hearing, Pine Tree Legal Assistance may be able to help you.  Get a list of Pine Tree offices and how to contact them.  If you are 60 or older, Legal Services for the Elderly may be able to help.

March 2016

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