The Food Supplement Program: An Overview
- What is the Food Supplement Program?
- What can I buy with my Food Supplement card?
- How do I apply?
- How quickly will I get my Food Supplement card? What if I need help right away?
- What is a Food Supplement household?
- Can legal non-citizens get Food Supplements?
- Are there some people who sometimes cannot get Food Supplements?
- Are there Food Supplement work requirements?
- How many assets can I have and still get Food Supplements?
- How much income can I have and still get Food Supplements?
- What income does not count?
- What expenses can I deduct from income?
- Does it help me get more Food Supplements if I get Fuel Assistance?
- If I am eligible, how much will I get in the program?
- What if DHHS tells me I'm not eligible, or I don't get the amount of Food Supplement that I think I should?
Link to Maine Food Supplement Certification Manual (official program rules)
What is the Food Supplement Program?
The Food Supplement program (it used to be the Food Stamp program) helps people pay for food. Each month people get Food Supplement benefits in a Food Supplement account. The program gives them a card, like a debit card from a bank, which they can use to buy food at grocery stores. Almost all people with low income are eligible for Food Supplements. You do not have to live with children, be on welfare, or be elderly or disabled to get Food Supplements. Many people work and get Food Supplements.
What can I buy with my Food Supplement card?
You can use your Food Supplement card (called "The Pine Tree Card") to buy food at most grocery stores and supermarkets. You can buy almost all foods with Food Supplements. You cannot use your Food Supplement card to buy tobacco, soap, toothpaste, paper products, pet food, alcohol, or other non-food products. Each time you buy food with your card, the cost is deducted from your Food Supplement account. Your account balance will be on your receipt.
How do I apply?
You do not have to apply in person for the Food Supplement program.
You can get a Food Supplement application from your local office of the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) by visiting or calling them. You can also apply over the phone. Go here for a listing of DHHS local offices. You can call them, to have them send an application to you. You can also go here to download and print off an application.
Be sure to complete and turn in your application as soon as possible. The sooner you apply, the more Food Supplements you will get in the first month. Your DHHS worker will need to see your 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).
How quickly will I get my Food Supplement card? What if I need help right away?
You should usually get your Food Supplements within 30 days of the day you apply. However, in an emergency, a new Food Supplement household can get help within 1 or 2 working days of when you apply. You must be able to prove your identity to get emergency Food Supplements. Your household is considered to be in an "emergency" if:
- your gross (before taxes) monthly income is less than $150, and your 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 do not 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.
What is a Food Supplement household?
You apply for Food Supplements as a household. A household can be a person living alone, or a group of people living together (whether or not they are related). If people in the home buy their food together and make meals together, then everyone is in the same "household".
However, 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. Your amount of Food Supplements is based on the income and assets of the members of your household.
Husbands and wives, and parents and children, 21 and under, who live together are considered to be in the same household even if they 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.
Are there some people who sometimes cannot get Food Supplements?
Yes. Under the Food Supplement rules, some people can not get them. However, there are often exceptions to these rules. Below is a list of people who, as a general rule, cannot get help. However, even if it looks like you may not be able to get help, it is always best to apply to be sure. You may fit within one of the many exceptions to these rules and be able to get Food Supplements. Also, even if an individual 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 do not follow the Food Supplement work rules can 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 contact with 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.
Are there Food Supplement work requirements?
For some people there are. You may have to register for work to get Food Supplements. You may also have to be in or get in an education and training program. You may also 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 live in parts of the state designated by DHHS as high unemployment area;
- 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 problem that makes you unable to work;
- you are caring for a child under 6;
- you are caring for a child, 6 or older, or an adult who needs help taking care of him or herself;
- you are already working 30 hours a week or are earning at least $196.50 (gross) per week ($217.50 per week starting 7/1/09);
- you are a migrant or seasonal farmworker and will begin work in 30 days;
- you are getting unemployment compensation or TANF; or
- you are a student enrolled at least half time in any school, training program or college and otherwise qualify for Food Supplements.
In addition, you do not have to take a job if any of these reasons apply:
- it pays less than the minimum wage;
- it subjects you to health or safety problems;
- you can't get there because of transportation problems;
- there is a strike or lockout at the job;
- you would be required to join or quit a union; or
- the work violates your religious beliefs.
You also do not have to take a job that is not the kind of work you have done before if you have been registered for work with the program for less than 31 days.
How many assets can I have and still get Food Supplements?
Assets do not count for households with incomes less than 185% of the Federal Poverty Level.
Assets are money or property. This includes things like cash, money in the bank, stocks, inheritances, and the cash value of an Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Assets also include boats, land, buildings and other valuable property.
How much income can I have and still get Food Supplements?
DHHS will not count all of your income in deciding if you can get Food Supplements. Some income may not count at all. Some expenses will be deducted from your income in setting the amount of Food Supplements that you will get.
People who get SSI and TANF 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 whether you can get Food Supplements:
- anything not in the form of money, like free food or clothing, public housing subsidies, school lunch, or WIC benefits;
- most "vendor payments" (money that someone else who is not in your household pays directly to someone who gives your household a service, like a friend who pays your rent directly to the landlord);
- money earned by a child under 18 who is in school at least part time;
- money from charity 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 most 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 of $142 for a household of from 1 to 3 members; $153 for a household of 4; $179 for a household of 5; and $205 for a household of 6 or more;
- 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; and
- 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 $1.00 of Fuel Assistance (LIHEAP) you will likely get a lot more in Food Supplements. Also, by getting Fuel Assistance it will make it easier for you to apply for Food Supplements. So when in doubt, apply for Fuel Assistance. Where to apply for Fuel Assistance
If I am eligible, how much will I get in the program?
This table shows the most any family can get if it has no other income. As your income goes up, your Food Supllements go down by roughly $1 for each $3 dollars you have.
|People in Household||Maximum Monthly Food Supplement Amount|
Current through September 2011
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 Supplements, you can ask for a Fair Hearing.
You will get a written notice from DHHS telling you if you can get help and how much help you can get. You will also get a notice any time DHHS plans to cut your Food Supplements.
If you disagree with what they say, you have 90 days from the date of this notice to ask for a Fair Hearing. If your Food Supplements are being cut, you can stop the cut until there is a decision from a Fair Hearing by asking for a hearing within 10 days. You must tell DHHS that you want your Food Supplement benefits to continue. If you end up losing your appeal, then you will have to repay the amount that you got during the appeal.
*You can not 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.