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Do Vending Machines Take EBT? All You Should to Know

Most card readers can’t read EBT cards. But it’s worth asking, is there a way to circumvent this?

September 26, 2023


Vending machines revolutionized the retail sector and made products easily accessible day and night. Because of the convenience they provide, many government and non-profit organizations around the world have used them to roll out programs that support vulnerable populations. In the United Kingdom, for instance, Action Hunger rolled out vending machines specifically for homeless people. If you are currently under government assistance programs in the United States, you may want to know if there are such valuable programs in your state and if vending machines take Electronic Benefit Transfer.

Do vending machines take EBT? While most vending machines today accept credit and debit cards and even Cash App, many do not take EBT cards even though the EBT system is similar to how debit cards work. You can, however, use EBT cards to buy products from select vending machines based on strict eligibility criteria. In this post, I will take you through these guidelines and how to use your EBT card to get the essential items you need.

What Are EBT Vending Cards?

blue EBT card

The Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) system replaced the Food Stamp Program. In the now-defunct Food Stamp System, people under government assistance received color-coded coupons or stamps worth $1, $5, and $10 to purchase food items. In 2004, the Bush administration completed the rollout of the EBT card system to replace food stamps in all states.

Under the EBT system, welfare recipients are given an electronic card credited monthly by the state for purchasing food items from qualifying grocery vendors. The average recipient gets about $230 per month.

To get an EBT card, you need to apply for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in the usual way. Every state runs its own mostly independent Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and every participant must apply with the state to get the EBT card. You can fill out a form online or at your local welfare office. If you are eligible, your state will establish an account in your name, issue an EBT card with a PIN, and deposit money in the account monthly.

At most grocery stores, the grocer runs EBT cards through the point of sale terminal (POS) or electronic reader just as they would a regular debit card. Your account will be debited immediately for the purchase amount, and the grocer will get the money at the end of the business day.

The Electronic Benefit Transfer system is superior to the old food stamp system, and many welfare recipients prefer it to coupons/stamps. You will probably also like it for the following reasons:

  • It is easy to carry EBT cards. A single card is much better than carrying paper coupons of various denominations.
  • It helps you avoid the stigma of food stamps. Some people found paying for goods at grocery stores or convenience stores using color-coded food stamps embarrassing. With EBT cards, most of the stigma is eliminated. 
  • Grocers like it. Because the system is electronic and the money is settled at the end of the business day, most grocers will gladly accept EBT cards.
  • It is less likely to be stolen. Someone can easily steal paper coupons and use them. EBT cards are much less prone to abuse because it has a PIN.
  • You don’t have to go to the state office every month. Under the old system, many states required recipients to go to the welfare office to collect paper coupons/stamps. Now, money is deposited to the recipients’ accounts electronically.

Do Vending Machines Take EBT Cards

For a vending machine to accept EBT cards, it must be programmed to take the card and carry foods allowable under the EBT program. By default, most vending machines don’t accept EBT cards like they do Cash App payments. EBT programs have strict guidelines on who qualifies for assistance and the kinds of food they can buy with the money provided.

Under the law establishing the program, ‘food’ is expressly defined as any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, hot foods, or hot food products ready for immediate consumption. The law also has guidelines on qualifying retail outlets that can accept EBT cards. The guidelines are:

  • To accept EBT cards the outlet must sell food for home preparation and consumption
  • To accept EBT cards the outlet must sell continuously not less than seven staple foods in the categories specified by the law
  • To accept EBT cards the total sales of these staple foods must account for not less than 50 percent of total sales

Most vending machines do not carry the allowable staple foods in the quantity required by the law. Given that the law requires that at least 50 percent of the stock in the outlet qualify, most vending machine operators will find it troublesome to meet the requirements continuously. The law states that carbonated and uncarbonated soft drinks, cocoa, tea, coffee, condiments, spices, and candy do not qualify. Foods that are eligible fall under the following categories:

  • Dairy products
  • Meat, poultry, and fish
  • Bread and cereals
  • Fruits and vegetables

Given the above regulations, it is easy to see why the typical vending machine cannot accept EBT cards. Most vending machines sell snacks and carbonated soft drinks, which aren’t eligible under the program. Therefore, when you use your EBT card at a regular snacks or drinks vending machine, it will be rejected. 

When a machine doesn't accept EBT cards to buy vending machine products, it is not that the card is faulty or that your balance is low. Your EBT card is likely just fine. You have several payment options to pay for vending machine products, including bills, coins, regular credit and debit cards, and mobile money such as Apple Pay and Google Pay.

Now, you may be wondering if you can cash out EBT and use the cash to buy products from a vending machine. There have been reported incidents of EBT recipients going to stores such as Walmart, purchasing items with their EBT card, and then returning their shopping without a receipt to get cash. While this may work in some cases, you should know that it is a grey area, and you may run afoul of the law.

What, in General, Can You Buy with an EBT Card?

A kid pondering his choice at a vending machine

Nutrition preferences vary widely. While Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP lays out the categories of eligible foods and those that aren’t allowed, everyone wants flexibility with their diet. How many different things you can buy with your EBT card may surprise you. Below are the eligible where machines are likely to accept EBT cards and ineligible items.

Eligible Food Items

Vegetables. Vegetables are the foundation of a healthy diet and a healthy vending. You can rest easy knowing that, using your EBT card, you can buy practically all your favorite fresh vegetables, including potatoes, corn, carrots, tomatoes, onions, green beans, lettuce, broccoli, and spinach.

Fruits. Fruits complement vegetables to provide you and your family with the essential vitamins and minerals you need. You can buy all fresh and frozen fruits with your EBT card. The only fruits that many vending machines can't vend for EBT payments are those with added salts, sugars, and fats.

Dairy Products. Many vending machines will accept EBT cards for products such as milk, infant milk,  cheese, cottage cheese, yogurt, and the like with your EBT card. The Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP requires participating stores to carry at least seven different products under the dairy category. You will, therefore, have a lot of nutritious dairy options to choose from.

Meat, Poultry, and Fish. There are no restrictions on the kinds of meats and fish you can buy with your EBT card. You can buy many fresh meats, including beef, lamb, pork, chicken, seafood, game meat, and more. Notably, you can buy frozen and packaged meat, including frozen cuts, ground meat, hot dogs, canned meat and fish, and deli meat.

Bread and Cereals. Most of your favorite foods made of wheat, barley, corn, rye, rice, and millet are eligible food items. Cereals and wholegrain foods form an essential component of a balanced diet.

Grocery Delivery Services. With the growth of e-commerce, the Nutrition Assistance Program SNAP supporting delivery services and online grocery shopping makes sense. At select online outlets, including Amazon (except in Alaska), you can buy qualifying food items using your EBT card and have them delivered.

Some Energy Drinks. You can use EBT payments to buy energy drinks with nutrition labels. Energy drinks marketed as dietary supplements are not eligible, though, and many vending machines won't accept EBT cards at this instance. Check with your state to determine which energy drinks qualify under the state’s SNAP guidelines. Generally, you can purchase items such as Red Bull, Monster, AMP, and Rockstar as these energy drinks are eligible.

Some Fast Food. While fast food is generally less nutritious than healthier alternatives, there are approved food items in form of junk food such as chips and crackers using EBT payments.

Cakes. The government doesn’t mind picking the tab for your special occasion celebration. You can buy cakes with EBT processing as long as the cost of the non-edible decorations does not exceed 50% of the cake’s price.

Seeds and Plants. What’s better than buying food at the grocery store? Growing your own food. If your situation allows, you can use SNAP benefits to purchase seeds and plants to grow your food. Also, those living in Alaskan rural areas can use EBT payments to buy hunting and fishing gear.

Restaurant Food for the Elderly, Homeless, and Disabled. Generally, restaurant food is not eligible for SNAP. However, there are exceptions in some states for elderly, homeless, and disabled people who may have trouble making meals for themselves to buy food from restaurants with EBT payments.

The program is called the Restaurant and Meals Program (RMP). It is available in Arizona, Maryland, California, Rhode Island, Virginia, Massachusetts, Illinois, and Michigan for people who qualify for SNAP benefits who also fall into the following categories:

  • The elderly (60+ years of age)
  • Permanent disability (receives disability payments/benefits from the government)
  • Homeless people
  • Spouse to someone in the above three categories

The RMP is only available in select restaurants in the said states. A restaurant must get approval from the state to accept EBT cards. The following fast food chains accept EBT processing in states running RMP:

  • McDonald’s
  • Burger King
  • Dominos
  • KFC
  • Carl’s Jr.
  • Little Caesars
  • Popeye’s
  • Subway
  • Wendys
  • Taco Bell
  • El Pollo Loco

SNAP benefits and guidelines depend on the state you live in. Check with your state to confirm if you are eligible for RMP. If you want to see the full list of healthy vending machine snacks, head over to our article on healthy vending.

Ineligible Items

Non-food Items. EBT payments are for nutritional needs only. Therefore, all non-food items are ineligible. You cannot buy items such as books, cleaning supplies, cosmetics, diapers, hair care products, or household items using your EBT card. If you need these essentials but can’t afford them, you may have to reach out to other federal and state programs for support.

Pharmaceutical Products. You cannot buy prescription and over-the-counter pharmacy items using SNAP benefits. Medicines, vitamins, and supplements are not eligible. You can use Medicaid or Medicare to pay for some of these items where applicable.

Alcoholic Beverages. You cannot buy beer, wine, vodka, and other alcoholic drinks with an EBT card. Further, you cannot buy qualifying items such as energy drinks and cereals at liquor stores. Shops dedicated to the sale of liquor are excluded from SNAP programs.

Tobacco Products. Cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, and other tobacco products are ineligible. Even e-cigarettes without tobacco are ineligible. 

Hot Prepared Food. Prepared hot foods to be consumed at the premises or as takeaways are not eligible. Therefore, you cannot use your EBT card to buy hot soups, stews, or foods that have been boiled, fried, or steamed. Generally, you cannot buy items using your EBT card at most restaurants and cafes. Nonetheless, SNAP permits the purchase of sliced lunch meat, salads, sushi rolls, and packaged sandwiches in approved stores and gas stations.

Pet Food. Pet food is not covered under all state’s SNAP programs. It appears the government's view is that pet owners should be able to foot the entire bill for their pets’ upkeep. Nonetheless, if you are facing hard times and need help in this area, consider contacting programs such as Pets for Life for assistance.

How Can Vending Business Owners Get Vending Machines to Accept EBT?

USDA Food and Nutrition Service is responsible for admitting retail outlets that want to participate in the EBT payments program. If you own a vending business, you can apply to join. You will have to provide information and evidence that your business meets the guidelines spelled under the law establishing SNAP. More importantly, your vending machine must have at least 50 percent of its stock eligible for SNAP. 

The best way to make this venture worthwhile is with a vending route and not a single vending machine. A USDA representative may visit your vending business locations to ascertain that you are compliant.

In your application, USDA may require you to provide your state and local business licenses, ID cards, sales and invoice records, and other documentation to show your vending stock meets SNAP guidelines. Once you apply to participate in the program, expect to hear from USDA within 45 days.

What Vending Machine Types May Become Eligible to Accept EBT?

Food vending machines can carry a variety of foods and drinks that can be purchased with EBT payments. A vending machine can only accept EBT cards if it has eligible food products and its point of sale system or electronic reader is programmed to accept EBT cards. The vendor will have to apply and get approval from USDA to install EBT processing system.

The following types of products in a vending machine may be eligible for purchase using SNAP benefits.

Potato chips. Bagged potato chips qualify because potatoes are vegetables. However, plain salted potato chips are not the healthiest snack and should be consumed limitedly. 

Pretzels. Pretzels fall under the bread and cereals category and are therefore eligible for purchase with EBT payments. Pretzels are a good vending machine snack because they are low-fat, low-calorie, and generally healthier than other bagged snacks.

Granola bars. Granola bars are healthy and make a great vending machine snack. You can buy them using EBT cards.

Bottled water. Yes, bottled water is eligible for purchase using SNAP benefits. Most drinks or combo vending machines have bottled water.

Soda. Soda and many sugary drinks can be bought with EBT cards. In fact, SNAP households tend to spend about 10% of their assistance on sugary drinks. This speaks to the average consumer’s attraction to sugar. For comparison, non-SNAP households also spend about the same proportion of their household grocery budget on sugary drinks - about 7% of the budget.

Sandwiches. Sandwich vending machines selling products made primarily from approved cereals, grains, and meats will likely qualify.

Organic snack machines. The selling point of organic snack machines is that they stock healthy drinks and snacks. Most of the snacks will fall under the categories approved by USDA for SNAP benefits.

Sushi Vending Machines. Sushi vending machines are trendy in Japan. Are they likely to make inroads in the United States? This would be a significant development since vending machines accept EBT payments for Sushi.

A variety of other snacks. The market for snacks is vast, and the product range has grown to match the demand. Today, the USDA allows participants to buy hundreds of snack brands with SNAP benefits. The following are the snacks you can buy from a vending machine that accepts EBT cards:

  • Chips, crisps, and straws that are made primarily with potatoes, vegetables, corn, and wheat
  • Crackers, corn nuts, onion rings, pork rinds, popcorn, cheese puffs, curls, and the like
  • Cupcakes, donuts, cookies, brownies, pies, sweet rolls, muffins, pastries, scones, and the like
  • Ice milk, ice cream, yogurt, whipped cream, custard, and the like

How to Use Vending Machines Taking EBT

If a vending machine’s card reader is configured to take EBT cards and has SNAP-eligible items in stock, you will have no problems paying with your EBT card. Follow the steps below to pay for products with an EBT card at vmany ending machines:

1.  Look for the “EBT” symbol. You want to ensure the card reader is configured to accept EBT cards. A SNAP-compliant vending machine usually has “EBT” on the display or the keypad. Also, they may simply state that ‘we accept EBT payments.

2.  Watch out for loyalty programs and rewards. Some vending machine companies run offers and promotions to build customer loyalty. Such promotions are often advertised on the vending machine’s display. Use such promotions on vending machines that accept EBT payments to reduce your shopping bill and earn points for future purchases.

3.  Select only SNAP-eligible products. You must select only products that are eligible under SNAP. The payment will be declined if your cart has items that do not qualify for machine to accept EBT payments. Generally, snacks made primarily from cereals and vegetables are allowed. Most sugary drinks are also eligible.

4.  Enter Your PIN. Once you’ve ascertained that the machine accepts EBT transaction and selected only eligible food items, you can complete the purchase by entering your Personal Identification Number (PIN).

Is Running Vending Machines That Take EBT a Good Business Idea?

Operating vending machines that accept EBT cards is an underserved market. This is a business opportunity that an enterprising entrepreneur can take advantage of to build thriving vending machine routes and eventually sell or scale. 

The limited availability of vending machines that accept EBT payments is mainly because of the extra approvals one must go through to launch such a vending business. The vending machine business is one of the easiest retail businesses to run, and most operators prefer to keep it as simple as possible to make it easy to add more locations and scale. Other reasons why EBT is not so common in vending machines include:

  • Cost of installing the card reader technology. A vending machine’s card reader must be programmed to accept EBT cards to serve SNAP participants. It is noteworthy that EBT processing fees are significantly lower than those of regular card transactions.
  • Eligibility issues. EBT transactions make vending purchases more complicated. A shopper cannot include non-eligible products in their cart and check out using their EBT cards. This may be an issue for a vending machine that stocks both eligible and non-eligible products.
  • There is no incentive to do so by state requirements. When applying for a vending license from the state or registering an LLC, the state won’t require you to take EBT. If there were a regulatory requirement for vending machine operators to take EBT, it would be universally available in vending machines.

The market for SNAP-eligible products is vast. If you can overcome the barriers, starting a SNAP-compliant vending machine business may be a good idea. The success of a vending machine business depends mainly on location. If you were to start a vending machine business taking EBT cards, below are some location suggestions:

  • Government offices and facilities. Government facilities frequented by people under EBT benefits are excellent places to sell snacks and drinks allowable under SNAP. Besides the visitors and guests, you will also have purchases from government and office workers who are not under assistance - just make sure you accept regular modes of payment as well.
  • Community centers and establishments. Local community centers in low-income areas can benefit from having vending machines taking EBT. Vending machines bring products closer to consumers. Ease of access plays a significant role in food procurement in low-income areas. Research shows that in suburban areas, supermarkets receive the bulk of SNAP payments. In low-income areas, however, most grocery stores and convenience stores get the bulk of SNAP payments even where supermarkets are available. 
  • Local non-profit organizations. If you land a vending location at a local non-profit office, taking EBT cards may be a good idea. Non-profits endeavor to support local communities and will be open to having SNAP-compliant vending machines on their premises as they’ll improve ease of access to food.
  • Recreation centers. Recreation centers make for great locations for snacks and cold drinks vending machines.

Choosing the right spot for your SNAP-compliant vending machines that allow EBT transaction will have the biggest impact on the success of your vending business. You can scout for suitable locations or hire a vending locator to find potential sites for you. Alternatively, you can get a list of potential locations in your area using our list-building service. This service will save you hours and make finding great locations much easier.

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