Smartphones have transformed the way we do so many things, from banking and shopping to getting directions and communicating. But even though the vast majority of us are walking around with powerful computers in our pockets, many government programs are still decidedly low-tech and time consuming.
Until recently, people who received Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, commonly known as food stamps, could only check their monthly benefit balance by calling a hotline â€” that, or keep an extraordinarily good tally of their grocery store receipts. With more than 40 million people receiving SNAP benefits, and 31% of low-income Americans relying on cell phones as their main internet connection, it seemed like an obvious area to make an app for that.
In 2016, software startup Propel did just that by unrolling the Fresh EBT app.
The Fresh EBT app allows food stamp recipients to use a smartphone to check the balance on their Electronic Balance Transfer card, the governmentâ€™s way of distributing SNAP benefits. The app now has more than 1 million users and works with the food stamp programs in every state.
The free app is available for both iOS and Android and can be downloaded from the iTunes app store and the Google Play site.
Itâ€™s a faster and more discreet way to check what food stamp benefits a person has left for the month, and it also lets people see what theyâ€™ve bought in the past and where they bought it. Although the app plots out nearby grocery stores and farmers markets that accept food stamps, it doesnâ€™t show which items are eligible to be purchased through the SNAP program.
Users can also check their benefits from other federal programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or Supplemental Security Income.
The Fresh EBT app is linked to a userâ€™s card through their stateâ€™s EBT portal. Every time someone uses the card at a grocery store or farmers market, the total adjusts and users can check their remaining balance on the app.
Image via Fresh EBT
Other Fresh EBT features include the ability to keep a running grocery list, and budgeting tools to help people better plan their shopping trips.
The average monthly SNAP benefit for one person is $134. Propel partnered with research lab Common Cents on a study that looked at the effect of giving some Fresh EBT app users weekly budget suggestions for spending their benefits. They found people were able to stretch their SNAP benefits out two more days (or six meals) when given some budget guidelines. Propel also has partnerships with national and local nonprofits like Feeding America and Share Our Strength to help people who find their SNAP benefits arenâ€™t enough to get them through the month.
The app also shows the locations of nearby food pantries, offers coupons for participating retailers â€” users have accessed close to $2 million in coupon savings so far â€” and provides access to more than 100,000 healthy and inexpensive recipes.
Image via Fresh EBT
The Fresh EBT app even has job postings â€” Propel reports that over 10,000 job applications have been submitted through their app.
To use the Fresh EBT app, you must provide sensitive personal information like your Social Security number, although Propel reports that the information is encrypted. Propel also doesnâ€™t store EBT card numbers or PINs on their servers.
Although the Fresh EBT app is available to all U.S. states and territories, there have been problems in the past for some users who live in one of the 25 states where the food stamp program is managed by the government contractor Conduent. Some users in these states reported that their balance data was unavailable for large stretches. And while Conduent does offer its own balance checking app, ConduentEBT, itâ€™s only available in three states â€” Utah, South Carolina and Oklahoma.
While people can always check their balances through the hotline if they have any Fresh EBT app troubles, itâ€™s also a good idea to hang on to to grocery receipts as backup.
The most common complaints about the Fresh EBT app are about difficulties in connecting, or getting locked out of an account and having trouble signing back in. Positive reviews note the ease and quickness of the app in comparison to calling the hotline to check a balance. Many users also like the grocery list function, the ability to see past transaction data and the recipes.
Here is a look at some additional pluses and minuses of the Fresh EBT app:
Anyone who regularly uses food stamp benefits through an EBT card, owns a smartphone and wants an easy way to keep track of their benefits will likely find the Fresh EBT app useful.
The app saves you money by offering coupons and directing users to stores offering specials. The app is also a one-stop shop for other information about early childhood education programs, local doctors, mental/health substance abuse programs, heating assistance and more.
All told, the Fresh EBT app is an efficient and data-driven way for people to get the most out of their SNAP benefits.
* Sponsors listed are Member FDIC or NCUA insured.