Using CalFresh EBT benefits

What are EBT cards?

EBT stands for “Electronic Benefit Transfer.” The electronic card for using CalFresh benefits is essentially works like a “debit card.” Officially, it is called the Golden State Advantage Card, but most people refer to it simply as the EBT card. CalFresh benefits are loaded onto these debit-like cards which can be used anywhere CalFresh benefits are accepted. If certified to receive CalFresh, 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” CalFresh, benefits should be available within three days. Once received, the card can be used in California or any other state.” [7 C.F.R. § 274.1(k)(4).]

Locations accepting EBT cards

The USDA approves retails stores for participation in the CalFresh 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 CalFresh EBT are:

  • Markets and grocers — Most supermarkets, corner stores and other grocers accept CalFresh.
  • Farmers’ markets — In 2007 alone, almost half a million dollars in CalFresh were used at farmers’ markets in California. Not all farmers’ markets accept CalFresh, but the number is increasing.
  • Flea markets — California is the first state in the nation to allow the use of SNAP benefits at flea markets. Few flea markets currently participate, though the program will likely expand to those with significant food sales.
  • Restaurants — A restaurant meals program was launched to allow homeless, disabled and elderly households to purchase hot food. [7 C.F.R. § 274.7(g)(4).] All counties must now  participate in the program. [ACL 21-100.]
  • Special programs — If authorized by USDA, drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs, shelters for battered women and children, group living arrangements, and public or private nonprofit homeless meal providers can purchase food on behalf of their residents. In some cases these residential programs can redeem CalFresh benefits directly. [7 C.F.R. § 278.1(e).]
  • Online purchases — Groceries can be purchased online at some stores using the EBT card.  Groceries can be purchased for home delivery using your EBT card at Amazon and Walmart (note that CalFresh does not cover the delivery fee).  Home delivery is available with the Instacart app and their participating stores. For a complete list of participating Instacart stores, visit Instacart’s EBT Online information page.  Groceries can also be purchased online for pick up at participating AlbertsonsSafeway, and Vons locations.  Sam’s Club does not currently offer EBT shopping or payments online, but some Sam’s Club locations offer EBT payments through the Sam’s Club Scan & Go app.  CDSS’ EBT online page has additional information about online purchases using EBT.

What you can buy with CalFresh benefits

See, generally 7 C.F.R. § 271.2 (definition of Eligible Foods), FNS Memo 2018-2 and the FNS SNAP page about eligible food items.

The types of food and certain non-food eligible for purchase with CalFresh include:

  • 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)(H).]
  • Seeds and plants to grow food for yourself or your family. [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(B); 7 C.F.R. § 271.2.]
  • Military commissary surcharges.
  • container deposits under state law.

What you cannot buy

See, generally, 7 C.F.R. § 271.2 and MPP § 63-102(e)(2). some notable excluded items are:

  • Tobacco products, such as cigarettes, cigars, etc.
  • Pet food.
  • Alcohol.
  • Non-food items, such as soap, toothpaste, toilet paper, 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).
  • Medicines and dietary 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).
  • Prepared food intended for on-premises consumption, but prepared food intended for off-premises consumption is eligible as long it is not hot at the point of sale.
  • Firearms, ammunition and explosives.
  • Live animals, except for shellfish, fish as long as they are removed from water prior to removal from the sales premises, and other animals live at the point-of-sale if they are slaughtered prior to removal from the premises.
  • Gift baskets if the value of non-food items is over half of the purchase price.
  • Fees, including retailer fees for the delivery of food and grocery bag fees.

For more information, see the FNS SNAP page detailing items eligible and ineligible for purchase using SNAP benefits.

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. The program was expanded to include homeless households. [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(H); ACIN I-71-11.]

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 CalFresh transactions as a restaurant. Restaurants are prohibited from charging a sales tax or meal tax on prepared foods purchased with CalFresh benefits. [MPP § 63-102(e)(2)(H)(3)(e)(ii).]

Two or four year colleges that operate food facilities on campus must apply to become a food vendor under the Restaurant Meals Program and colleges must provide contracting food vendors with information about the Restaurant Meals program.  [ACL 16-112.]

Effective upon automation in the CalSAWS system, which is expected in early 2025, the CalFresh Restaurant Meals Program is limited to household where all members of the household are eligible for it.  The only exception is spouses do not need to meet the age or disability criteria.  [ACL 24-01.]  Households that include a member who does not meet the Restaurant Meals criteria (except for a spouse) are not eligible for the Restaurant Meals Program. [Id.]

After automation is completed, CalSAWS will identify existing households that are no longer eligible for Restaurant Meals and will terminate their access to it. [Id.]

When automation is completed, any member of a household that is eligible for Restaurant Meals, including spouses, will be able to access the program. [Id.]

When automation is completed, counties will be required to provide the CF 889 form to all households that are approved for or terminated from the Restaurant Meals Program. [Id.]