How to apply for food assistance, even if you’ve never done it before | Employment Guide | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

How to apply for food assistance, even if you’ve never done it before

click to enlarge How to apply for food assistance, even if you’ve never done it before
Photo: Courtesy of Just Harvest
Just Harvest tokens, EBT card, and Food Bucks
Applying for food assistance can be confusing. Pittsburgh City Paper talked with Ann Sanders, public policy advocate at Pittsburgh food access nonprofit Just Harvest, about what steps people can take to apply for food stamps, aka SNAP, and where to go for help.

The main food assistance program in the U.S. is the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, commonly referred to as food stamps. If you need to access food assistance through SNAP, you can apply through the COMPASS system online, which offers a number of different types of benefits, including medical assistance, TANF cash assistance, and the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program.

“There’s been a growth in the number of people getting food stamps, but it hasn’t been crazy like it has been for unemployment,” Sanders said. “At the beginning, there was a huge spike, but it’s kind of gone down quite a bit since people started getting their unemployment benefits.”

Now that the $600-a-week unemployment benefit raise has expired, Sanders is anticipating a larger number of people may end up needing to seek food assistance.

“That extra $600 was obviously making a difference,” she said. “Now, we’re expecting our lists to grow very, very quickly. We’ve already done several applications for folks who lost that benefit, and we expect to see a lot more coming in.”

How to apply

To apply, go to the COMPASS website on a computer or a mobile device. If using a smart phone, you’ll need to click to access the full desktop-style website. Just Harvest can help you with your application over the phone, as can the Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank.

The site will help you create a username and password, which Sanders advises you to write down and keep in a safe place, in case you need to access your application again. Next, the site will ask for information about you and the people you live with, and allow you to pick what benefits you are applying for — food stamps, medical assistance, or other programs. After answering all the questions, Sanders says applicants sometimes forget to hit the “submit” button at the bottom of the screen, so don’t forget to fully submit the application before closing the page.

Afterward, a list of documents will come up for you to submit. Sanders explained that the two most important parts are the proof of income and identity for main household members, but that you should send in whatever parts of the list that you have available. If you’re rejected because of missing important paperwork, COMPASS will typically give you a chance to submit that paperwork if you appeal it instead of submitting a full new application.

“The most common reason for denial is that people don’t send in their paperwork,” Sanders said. If a scanner isn’t available, you can send the documents in through the COMPASS mobile app, MyCompassPA.

Previously, the SNAP application process required an interview, which could be a hurdle for applicants if they missed the phone call or didn’t have cell service. But since the pandemic started, the interview process has been waived for the majority of benefit programs, except for the cash assistance program.

According to Just Harvest’s website, a person is qualified for food stamps if they are a resident of the county where they are applying for benefits, are able to provide verification of identity (Social Security number), are a U.S. citizen or a qualified non-citizen meeting other eligibility rules, and meet the income guidelines. Owning a home or car, working, having savings, living with other people, being a refugee, or receiving other benefits does not disqualify an applicant from being approved for food stamps. Visit for a full list of qualifications, including income limits.

If you’re approved for benefits, you will be mailed a letter listing how much you will get per month, and two or three days later, the actual EBT card. If you send in the documents quickly after you have applied, you can get a response and be approved in as little as five days. The state can also match with the unemployment database, so applicants typically don’t need to send in proof of unemployment, as the government already knows that they are receiving a certain amount of money through unemployment.

Calling the number on the back of the EBT card lets you activate it and set a PIN number. From there, the EBT card works somewhat like a debit card, though there are some things that can’t be bought with it — non-food products like toilet paper or paper towels, fast food, hot foods, pet food, or alcohol. However, many local farmers’ markets do accept the cards, in addition to retail stores. ( is one resource for finding places that accept SNAP benefits.)

You’ll need to be recertified for SNAP/Food Stamp benefits every 12 months, and you’re required to report any household changes every six months. The Department of Public Welfare will mail you a Semi-Annual Reporting Form and an annual renewal packet. Benefits are auto-reloaded onto the card every month, and if you go back to work and no longer need the assistance, you can call the number on your card to cancel their benefits. If the card is lost or stolen, you can call and get a new one sent to you in the mail.

As long as both a state and federal state of emergency are still in place, food stamps recipients are getting a “bump,” meaning they will receive the maximum amount of assistance for their household size. As of now, the Pennsylvania emergency declaration is set to expire at the beginning of September, so if it’s not renewed, this provision may disappear.
click to enlarge How to apply for food assistance, even if you’ve never done it before
Photo: Courtesy of Just Harvest
Just Harvest Fresh Access representatives helping bring Pittsburghers access to farm-fresh goods at area farmers markets.
SNAP is different from WIC (Women, Infants, and Children) benefits, an assistance program for people who are pregnant, postpartum, breastfeeding, or have children under 5 years old. While SNAP functions like a “no” list, banning certain items from being purchased, WIC functions like a “yes” list, in which a number of products in stores are specifically labeled as WIC-approved, and other products can’t be purchased. The income limits are slightly higher for WIC, so Sanders recommends that if you’re just over the income limit for food stamps and have very young children, you should look into WIC, or apply by calling 1-800-942-9467 or through

Above all, Sanders recommends that people seeking food assistance not be ashamed or afraid to ask for help, whether that be looking for benefits in the first place or contacting an organization like Just Harvest to help navigate the application.

“I think a lot of people wait until they’re in dire emergency before they resort to applying for assistance. Apply as soon as you know you have a need or are slightly struggling,” Sanders says. “In Pittsburgh, there are a lot of organizations that will help people do the applications, so if you get stuck, reach out for help. You have rights — if you feel like you’re being mistreated by the department, you can file an appeal, and there are people you can talk to.”