How Does a Medicare Grocery Allowance Work — And Do You Qualify?

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Who among us wouldn’t want an extra $100 each month to buy healthy food at our local grocery store? Factor in offering this benefit to older Americans, and it might seem like a no-brainer.

Some Medicare plans do offer a grocery benefit, but they’re not common. In fact, original Medicare, the standard version provided by the government, does not extend a grocery allowance. However, privately-implemented Medicare Advantage plans may include grocery benefits, including certain Special Needs plans.

Only certain types of Medicare Advantage plans offer a grocery allowance. 

We’ll explain how the Medicare grocery allowance works, who can get it and how much the average monthly amount is.

What Is a Medicare Grocery Benefit?

A Medicare grocery benefit is a monthly or quarterly allowance offered by certain types of Medicare Advantage plans. Don’t look at the money as a carte blanche to buy anything at the grocery store. You can only use it to buy qualifying health food.

That often includes dairy products, eggs, soup, produce, vegetables, meat, sugar, flour, water and herbs, according to Medigap. It won’t include things like alcohol, tobacco and personal hygiene items. Sugary or high-fat items like chips, candy and soda may also be excluded. Sometimes these allowances will also cover over-the-counter medicine and certain products from drugstores. The money can also occasionally cover home-delivered meals in the event of a medical issue.

Most plans let you access a full list of eligible healthy foods and participating stores by logging into your account online.

How Does a Medicare Grocery Allowance Work?

Money is usually deposited onto a prepaid debit card that you can use at certain grocery stores.

These cards go by different names. They include Medicare food allowance card, a Medicare healthy food card, a flex card or a Medicare grocery card, among others. 

Many of these Medicare grocery allowance benefits are “use it or lose it.” That means unused funds don’t roll over month to month. You’ll have to use the entirety of the allowance in the quarter or month it is issued. 

You must meet eligibility requirements before you can start receiving a grocery allowance, and they usually aren’t issued automatically. In some cases, you may have to undergo an annual wellness visit, a health risk assessment and have evidence of your specific condition, particularly if you are enrolling in a Medicare Advantage Special Needs plan.

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Which Medicare Plans Offer a Grocery Allowance Benefit?

Original Medicare, administered by the federal government, does not offer food benefits or a grocery allowance for beneficiaries.

A grocery benefit is mostly offered by a specific type of Medicare Advantage plan called a Special Needs Plan (SNP). You can qualify for this type of plan if you have certain diseases or a qualifying health condition. This can include dementia, chronic heart failure, HIV/AIDs, or if you spend at least 90 days a year in a facility like a nursing home or a long-term care hospital.

Other common chronic conditions that may qualify you for a SNP include: cancer, end stage renal disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and diabetes.

If you’re enrolled in both Medicare and Medicaid, you may be eligible for what’s known as a Dual Enrollment Special Needs Plan, or a D-SNP.

About 41% of Special Needs Plans offered a food and produce supplemental benefit in 2023, according to KFF. In contrast, just under 16% of regular Medicare Advantage plans offered a similar benefit.

SNPs cover the same Medicare Part A and Part B benefits as all other Medicare Advantage plans, but they can also cover extra services for the special groups they serve, including days in the hospital, for example.

How These Benefits Started

In 2020, the federal government started allowing Medicare Advantage plans to offer extra benefits not directly related to health care for chronically ill beneficiaries.

That’s opened the door for private insurers to advertise a slew of auxiliary benefits — from transportation to non-medical appointments to pest control services and, yes, healthy food grocery allowances. Data 2022 from the U.S. Government Accountability Office showed that roughly one-third of plans offered at least one of the newer types of benefits—the most common were in-home support services and food and produce. Medicare Advantage enrollment has skyrocketed from 13.4 million in 2012 to 30.8 million in 2023.

There are literally hundreds of Medicare Advantage plans nationwide, and what’s available often depends on where you live.

The best way to find a Medicare Advantage plan offering a grocery allowance is to use the Medicare Plan Finder tool.

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How Much Is the Average Medicare Grocery Allowance?

Not all plans offer a Medicare grocery allowance, and the benefit size varies from plan to plan.

Florida Blue Medicare’s D-SNP, for example, offers a $50 monthly food allowance benefit to qualifying members.

Meanwhile, Freedom Health offers a grocery benefit card, entitled the “Everyday Options” allowance, that ranges from $85 to $175 a month for select Chronic Special Needs Plans and Dual Special Needs Plans as well as a $500 annual Active Fitness allowance.

Some plans might require you to complete health assessment surveys and other tasks to “earn points” toward your grocery allowance, like the Grocery Plus Benefit offered by some Clover Health plans.

Other companies have rolled their monthly grocery allowance benefits into a larger, more general pool of money for members. Humana, for example, transitioned its Healthy Foods Card to a “healthy options allowance,” which beneficiaries can use to pay for eligible healthy food, over-the-counter products, utilities, rent and even pet food. The benefit ranges from $35 to $275, according to Humana.

How Is a Grocery Benefit Different from a Meal Benefit?

While a monthly or quarterly Medicare grocery benefit remains a relatively uncommon perk among select Medicare plans, meal delivery services are more common.

In 2023, about 78% of all Medicare Advantage plans offered meal benefits, according to KFF. Compare that to less than 16% of all individual plans that offered a grocery allowance.

The biggest difference is that meal benefits are only available for a limited time, usually four weeks or less, following an inpatient stay at a hospital or skilled nursing facility.

A doctor, discharge nurse or care coordinator can order the meal benefit if it’s offered by your plan. Check with your Medicare Advantage plan provider to see if a meal benefit is included.

Is a Medicare Grocery Allowance Benefit Worth It?

Getting free money each month for groceries is hard to resist, but there’s a lot more to consider when choosing a Medicare plan than just food benefits.

You want to find a plan that meets all your health care needs, including robust coverage for inpatient hospital stays and prescription drugs. Medicare Advantage plans also restrict you to a limited network of providers, which might not be ideal for your situation.

The State Health Insurance Assistance Program, or SHIP, is a national network of trained volunteers who provide unbiased one-on-one assistance, counseling and education to Medicare beneficiaries and their families.

They can help you compare your current plan’s benefits with others in your area and explore Medicare Savings Programs.

A SHIP volunteer will never try to sell you anything. There’s no income restrictions to get help either. Anyone can use the program, free of charge.

You can find your SHIP by using the online SHIP Regional Locator tool. Or you can call the national network hotline at 1-877-839-2675.

Feeling a little lost? Here’s a refresher on how Medicare works.

7 Other Ways to Save Money on Food

If you’re trying to save money on food but don’t want to switch to a different health insurance company, you have options.

1. Meals on Wheels

Meals on Wheels is a nationwide program designed to help generally homebound and often low-income seniors access food. It operates across the country through a network of volunteers who deliver nutritious meals directly to the homes of seniors in need.

Meals are usually provided on a sliding scale basis. Depending on your income, you may pay nothing or you may pay full price, although the organization notes that “no senior will be denied a meal because of an inability to pay.” Some communities also have waiting lists.

You can find contact information for your local Meals on Wheels program by using this search feature.

2. See if You Qualify for SNAP

The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP for short, is a public assistance program that provides money for food to qualifying people with low incomes.

The average monthly SNAP benefit was $212 per month in 2023, according to KFF.

To qualify for SNAP benefits, you must have limited assets and income. Luckily, eligibility criteria for SNAP is less stringent for people over 60 and those with disabilities than it is for the general population.

To apply for SNAP benefits, fill out the online application for your state.

3. Contact a Food Pantry

When your budget is tight and there’s simply not enough money for groceries, food pantries can be a lifeline.

Feeding America offers a food bank and food program locator you can use to find food banks in your area.

You can also reach out to United Way’s 211 service for information about other local resources that may be available to you.

4. Master the Art of Budget Meal Prep

Meal prepping is a great way to save money on groceries while minimizing food waste. However, finding the time for it can be challenging.

Our tips for budget meal planning include keeping an eye out for sales, planning your shopping around specific recipes or dishes, prioritizing seasonal produce and more.

5. Get Creative with Your Food Pantry Finds

While food pantries typically provide enough food to last a week, there are ways to stretch it even further.

By combining inexpensive produce with food pantry staples like black beans and rice, you can create filling meals for less than $2 per serving.

6. Make Versatile Entrees

While having the same lunch and dinner might not be the most exciting prospect, it’s a proven strategy for saving money on food.

Explore Taste of Home’s collection of more than 100 freezer casserole recipes, which offer options that can be used for at least two meals.

7. Get the Inside Scoop on Grocery Store Discounts

Grocery stores often mark down items that are close to their expiration date on specific days of the week. By asking a store associate about their discount schedule, you can uncover great deals that aren’t advertised in the weekly grocery store ads.

You can also try food waste apps designed to pass on savings to consumers like you.

With Too Good To Go and Flashfood, you can connect with businesses that offer steep discounts on food nearing its expiration date.

Keep in mind that these food waste apps are currently available only in select U.S. cities. Still, it’s worth downloading them (they’re both free) to see if you can take advantage of discounted food.

Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer at The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on Medicare, retirement, investing and taxes. 

Writer Elizabeth Djinis is a contributor to The Penny Hoarder, often writing about selling goods online through social platforms. Kelly Gurnett is a former contributor to The Penny Hoarder.