How Does a Medicare Grocery Allowance Work and Do You Qualify?
You’ve probably seen the commercials.
Sign up for our Medicare Advantage plan and you get $100 worth of groceries (or more!) each month!
If you’re an older American on a tight budget, an extra $100 bucks for healthy food sounds almost too good to be true.
Medicare grocery benefits are legit but they’re not common. Only certain types of Medicare Advantage plans offer a grocery allowance. If you’re enrolled in Original Medicare, administered by the federal government, this benefit isn’t available.
So how does the Medicare grocery benefit work, who can get it and how much is the average monthly amount?
We break it all down.
What Is a Medicare Grocery Benefit?
A Medicare grocery benefit is a monthly or quarterly allowance offered by certain types of Medicare Advantage plans. The money can be used to purchase qualifying healthy food.
You can’t use the money to purchase things like alcohol, tobacco and personal hygiene items. Chips, candy and soda may also be excluded.
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 including a Medicare food allowance card, a Medicare healthy food card, a flex card or a Medicare grocery card, among others.
Many of these Medicare food allowance benefits are “use it or lose it,” meaning unused funds don’t roll over month to month.
You must meet eligibility requirements before you can start receiving a grocery allowance and they usually aren’t issued automatically.
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.
Common chronic conditions that may qualify you for a SNP include: cancer, congestive heart failure, 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 35% of Special Needs Plans offered a food benefit in 2022, according to KFF. In contrast, just under 10% of regular Medicare Advantage plans offered a grocery 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.
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.
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.
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 Medicare grocery benefit card of $50 to $100 per month for select Chronic Special Needs Plans and Dual Special Needs Plans.
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 2022, about 71% of all Medicare Advantage plans offered meal benefits, according to KFF. Compare that to less than 10% 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.
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 program designed to help lower income older adults 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. 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 $230 per month in 2022, 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.
For example, If anyone in the household is 60 or older, the limit on countable resources is $4,250 in 2023 instead of $2,750. It’s one of several special rules for the elderly or disabled.
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 pantry 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.
Looking for more meal ideas? Check out our list of affordable freezer meals you can freeze and save for later.
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.
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.