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4. Using CalFresh (food stamps) EBT benefits

Paper coupons

Food Stamp paper coupons have been replaced by electronic “debit” cards called “EBT” cards. If someone still has paper coupons, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) says retailers must still honor them. However, USDA does not know how long this policy will last, so they encourage those in possession of paper coupons to use them now.

EBT cards

Golden State Advantage Card

The electronic food stamp card is officially known in California as the Golden State Advantage Card. Many people refer to it as the EBT card. EBT stands for Electronic Benefit Transfer. Food Stamp benefits are loaded onto these debit-like cards which can be used anywhere food stamp benefits are accepted. If certified to receive food stamps, benefits should be on the applicant’s card within 30 days from the date an application was filed. [7 C.F.R. § 274.2 (b).] If the applicant qualifies for expedited or “emergency” food stamps, benefits should be available within three days. Once received, the card can be used in California or any other state. [7 C.F.R. § 274.12(h)(10).]

Locations accepting CalFresh EBT benefits

The USDA approves retails stores for participation in the Food Stamp Program. Generally, stores must offer a variety of “staple foods” including perishable foods. [7 C.F.R. § 278 et seq.] Among the locations commonly approved to accept food stamps are:

Markets and grocers
Most supermarkets, corner stores and other grocers accept food stamps. After initialing not participating, Trader Joe’s (with approximately 150 locations in California) and Costco (as of May 2010, with over 100 locations) now accept EBT cards.
Farmers’ markets
In 2007 alone, almost half a million dollars in food stamps were used at farmers’ markets in California. Not all farmers’ markets accepts food stamps, but the number is increasing. Ninety-six farmers’ markets in 16 counties currently accept food stamps in California.
Flea markets
California is the first state in the nation to allow the use of food stamps at flea markets. Few flea markets currently participate, though the program will likely expand to those with significant food sales.
A restaurant meals program was launched to allow homeless, disabled and elderly households to purchase hot food. [7 C.F.R. § 274.10.] Counties can choose to participate in the program. It is currently operating in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco, Tuolumne, and Santa Clara Counties. Check with your county to see if they participate in the program and if so, ask for a list of participating restaurants.
Special Programs
Drug addict and alcoholic treatment and rehabilitation programs, group living arrangements, shelters for battered women and children, and public or private nonprofit homeless meal providers — if authorized by USDA — can purchase food on behalf of their residents; and in some cases these residential programs can redeem food stamps directly. [7 C.F.R. § 278.2.]
On-line Purchases
Food stamp EBT benefits cannot be used to buy food on the Internet. For technical and security reasons, USDA does not permit Internet EBT purchases. For more information, see Can EBT be used for online purchases?

What you can buy with CalFresh (food stamp) benefits

See this FNS memo on eligible food. Generally, this is:

  • Any food for human consumption except hot food (but remember, there is also an exception for authorized hot meal programs and approved  restaurant meals programs). [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)]
  • Seeds and plants to grow food for yourself or your family. [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(B); 7 C.F.R. § 271.2]

What you cannot buy [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(B); 7 C.F.R. § 271.2]

  • Tobacco
  • Pet food
  • Alcohol
  • Non-food items such as soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, cigarettes, etc.
  • Vitamins and medicines (if prescribed, these may be out-of-pocket medical deductions for elderly/disabled households)
  • Any hot food, including hot food intended for immediate consumption (with the exception of approved meal programs (see MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(C-H) and restaurant meals programs).
  • Food Supplements (easy test: if the items has a nutrition facts label it is an eligible food product; if it has a “supplement facts” label it is an ineligible supplement).

For more information, see the FNS page on Eligible Food Items.

Restaurant meals program

This program is designed to help households who do not have a place to store and cook food, or who may have a disability that makes preparing meals for themselves difficult. It began in 1978 when federal regulations gave states the option to allow elderly and disabled food stamp households to use food stamp coupons in authorized restaurants. In 1996, the program was expanded to include homeless food stamp households. [MPP §63-102(e)(2)(H); ACIN I-31-04]

Under the program, prepared foods at participating restaurants and grocery stores can be purchased with an EBT card. Participating restaurants must meet requirements placed on them by the county and must be authorized to process food stamp transactions as a restaurant. Restaurants are prohibited from charging a sales tax or meal tax on prepared foods purchased with food stamp benefits. [7 C.F.R. § 274.10.]


Food stamp recipients cannot be charged state or local sales taxes on any purchase made with food stamps. [MPP § 63-102(H)(3)(e)(ii); 7 C.F.R. § 272.1(b).]