Low-Cost Restaurants and Prepared Meals Can Be Paid for Using Food Stamps Under Federal Program

After learning that food stamps wouldn’t cover rotisserie chicken, Maryland resident Rhona Reiss began speaking out about the program’s gaps. Reiss, who is 77, cannot use her benefits to buy hot or prepared foods – even as an older adult.

Meanwhile, states like Maryland are taking steps to change this rule.

Six states have adopted a little-used federal program that allows older adults to use their food benefits to eat at select, low-cost restaurants since two years ago.

Restaurant Meals Program, as it’s known, provides meals to homeless and disabled people alike.

California and Arizona are the states that offer the program most widely, and newer participants such as Maryland and Illinois are still ramping up their operations.

It is thought that the sudden growth of the program has to do with government efforts to expand access to Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP, during the pandemic and to take a closer look at home cooking and federal nutrition programs.

American policy has long been based on the assumption that the best way to feed poor people is by encouraging them to prepare their own meals.

Nevertheless, a growing number of advocates and experts have expressed concerns that many Americans are no longer able to prepare some recipes like year’s back.

Now a volunteer at the Montgomery County Food Council in Maryland, Reiss testified before the Maryland state legislature about friends who have arthritis and can’t handle a knife, or whose homes lack fully-equipped kitchens.

There have been challenges and opposition to Restaurant Meals in several states, primarily due to their nutrition and cost. Fast-food chains were allowed on the program, which has caused controversy.

It has also been difficult to implement in some states, with fewer restaurants participating than advocates had anticipated. In Illinois, for example, the legislation was approved two years ago, but the program hasn’t been implemented yet.

“We just sort of ignoring the fact that there are populations that don’t have the means to prepare or store food,” said Mohammed Aly, the executive director of the Orange County Poverty Alleviation Coalition, which fought to expand the Restaurant Meals Program in California, “and that literally the most poor and the most disabled among us are completely left out of our nationwide hunger assistance program.”

“The fact that only a handful of states have heard of this program or have implemented it in any fashion – that absolutely needs to change.”

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There have been challenges and opposition to Restaurant Meals in several states, primarily due to their nutrition and cost. Fast food chains allowed participants have their meal at the chain, which has caused controversy.

It has also been difficult to implement in some states, with fewer restaurants participating than advocates had anticipated. In Illinois, for example, the legislation was approved two years ago, but the program hasn’t been implemented yet.

“Just understand that this will allow individuals who are receiving food stamps, with the intent behind that that they can go to the grocery store and purchase needed supplies for the family, to now go to a restaurant and do the same,” said Virginia state Representative, Robert Orrock, said at floor debate in 2020.

“This now further dilutes the monies they receive to allow them to go out to a restaurant and get less food for more money.”

The Last of Restaurant Meals

Since 2003, Restaurant Meals have been in decline: from 19 states in 2003 to only four by 2018. It is still unclear, even within the federal welfare bureaucracy, why states left the program. According to a former U.S. Agriculture Department official, Restaurant Meals is a small, random stepchild program, which many welfare departments had neglected since it was introduced in 1978.

Restaurant Meals are credited with reviving interest almost everywhere across the country by advocates and policymakers. Over the past decade, 11 counties in California have adopted the program, often as a result of homelessness crises that undermine traditional food assistance methods.

As encampments grew in Fresno and Los Angeles, soup kitchens and food pantries had difficulty keeping up with that growing pace. Still, this is even very difficult for Homeless people as they have no safe way to conserve or keep food, not to talk of cooking it.

“We have been listening to these reasonable questions like, ‘Why can I buy a frozen pizza, but not a hot pizza?’ ‘Why can I buy raw chicken, but not rotisserie?'” Director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, Michael J. Wilson, said.

“And that has forced us to reexamine … what programs exist to address these problems. That often leads to Restaurant Meals.”

Six states namely Arizona, California, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island and Virginia now let some SNAP users eat at restaurants.

Also, Illinois and New York have implemented laws that direct social service agencies to apply for the program. Also in 2019, the California Legislature passed a bill that extended Restaurant Meals to small and rural counties.

Legislation relating to programs has generally passed along party lines. There is, however, some notable exception: California passed its bill unanimously, while Senate Republican Leader Dan McConchie in Illinois spoke out in support of the program, citing his own difficulties preparing meals in a wheelchair.

“We’re always looking for ways to maximize SNAP benefits for our constituents, many of whom are disabled or seniors,” said Karines Reyes, a Democrat representing the Bronx in New York.

“The Restaurant Meals Program is already a federal program, and it’s been piloted in several states, so it was the perfect way for us to do that.”

Before states can participate in Restaurant Meals, they must demonstrate to the U.S. department of agriculture that some families are not adequately served by traditional food benefits. The program then offers discounted meals at low-cost, state-certified restaurants, usually chains like Subway and McDonald’s, to three target populations.

Participating restaurants must offer discounted meals to participants under the direction of the welfare agencies. In addition to requiring certain nutrition standards, they can also mandate that restaurants provide indoor seating, providing socialization and clean restrooms to people who may not have them otherwise.

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According to Andrew Cheyne, director of government affairs at the California Association of Food Banks, the program is as much a source of dignity as food for many participants.

Approximately 155,000 households and more than 1,500 restaurants participate in the Los Angeles County program.

“I know the whole menu at all of these places,” said an older California woman, who asked not to be named due to the stigma attached to food stamps.

“I get the Subway salads. I get the $2 Burger King breakfast. It gets you through, really – it’s a lifesaver.”

Backlogs and Delays

There was a minor scandal in 2011 when USA TODAY revealed that Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC were planning to expand nationally. In response, prominent food policy experts, including New York University’s Professor Marion Nestle, criticized the program as a handout to fast food chains.

Michigan eliminated its program in 2013 due to concerns over nutrition. The state of California also considered eliminating it.

Reyes, the state representative, believes that skeptics questioned both the healthfulness and relative cost of restaurant meals more recently when the program was being considered by the New York State Assembly. In Illinois and Virginia, critics also claim current benefits will not cover the increased cost of dining out, posing more problems for welfare recipients and putting pressure on the system itself.

On another hand, the Republicans and Democrats backed the New York bill in the end – thanks in part to the additional argument that struggling restaurants could use an injection of cash during the Pandemic.

“The dialogues have been unfortunate,” said Jessica Bartholow, who is a chief of staff for state Sen. Nancy Skinner, a Democrat.

“‘What food will they get? Is it healthy? Are taxpayers paying for this?’ The dialogue completely undermines the bigger picture – which is that some people can’t prepare food for themselves.”

The program has also been resisted by some state agencies, citing that it is difficult to administer. It is a lengthy bureaucratic process for restaurants to sign up for SNAP, which requires them to fill out multiple applications and buy equipment. Case management systems that distinguish eligible older, disabled and homeless users must also be updated or retrofitted.

According to Sophie Milam, vice president of policy at the Greater Chicago Food Depository, the city’s food bank, the program is still struggling to recruit enough restaurants in Illinois after the state Legislature voted to opt-in two years ago. The delay caught advocates by surprise since they believed obtaining federal approval would be the most challenging aspect.

“It’s become clear that implementation of this program is more than just getting policy approval,” Milam said. “It really requires on-the-ground community engagement.”

What are the Next Steps?

Many state advocates, however, see Restaurant Meals as the first step toward a more comprehensive revamp of the food stamp program even in its broadest application. USDA spokesperson said recipients still can’t use their benefits to buy a rotisserie chicken or hot soup, and congressional action would be needed to change this.

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In addition, some scholars argued that current benefits are not aligned with the way households typically shop and consume food, even after pandemic increases. According to a 2018 report by the USDA’s Economic Research Service, Americans are increasingly turning to convenience foods and ready-to-eat foods, especially in households where all its adults work.

However, according to George Davis, a food and health economist at Virginia Tech, families generally face a trade-off between the amount of money they spend on groceries and the amount of time they spend preparing meals. It may be easier and faster to buy convenience foods, but it also drives up grocery bills beyond what most households can afford with SNAP.

Davis and other researchers determined, in a recent paper, that the average SNAP recipient household would have to devote almost a quarter of its working hours to cooking in order to meet the Department of Agriculture’s nutritional standards and budgetary requirements.

“That would be difficult for anyone, but it’s especially difficult for low-income families because they have so many competing demands on their time,” explained Lindsey Smith Taillie, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who studies low-income diets and home cooking.

“When you consider that this population is working multiple jobs, raising children, dealing with social services, that’s not a lot of time to cook.”

Reiss, the older Maryland resident, agrees with this. She cannot yet access

Maryland’s Restaurant Meals Program from Montgomery County, where she lives because it is still being rolled out. Nevertheless, she has already lobbied for the broader hot-food ban to be included in the federal farm bill of 2023, the massive, five-year legislation that governs nutrition policy.

In Maryland, she plans to convince officials that people of all ages, not just old people, individuals with disabilities, or homeless people, could benefit from some kinds of hot or prepared food.

“Change takes time, and I know I need to be patient,” Reiss said.

“But I’m ao passionate about seeing these SNAP regulations changed for all the people who need it.”

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