In California, You Can Use SNAP Benefits For Restaurant Food

Did you know that in most U.S. counties, it's illegal to buy pre-prepared food with food stamps? That includes food at restaurants, fast-food joints, and even pre-made meals at a supermarket hot bar. If that seems strange or unjust to you, you should read this piece, originally published on Civil Eats. It details the fights that advocacy groups are undergoing to undo what they call discrimination against those who can't cook—be it by physical disability or lack of access to a kitchen, or even a place to store food.

Basically, under an obscure provision in the Food Stamp Act of 1964, SNAP participants can only buy pre-prepared food if their state has a Restaurant Meals Program. This leaves the logistics of figuring out which restaurants take food assistance benefits up to the state—but in order to expand that program, each state still needs federal approval to do so. California just passed a bill in October 2019 that expands its RMP from just 10 counties to statewide, thus allowing elderly, disabled, and homeless folks on food stamps to buy hot meals. This is particularly meaningful in the Golden State, which has the nation's highest number of people experiencing homelessness.

Advocates in Illinois and Maryland are both mid-fight for hot meals benefits, though it's tough with the current administration's efforts to hack away at the SNAP program. The Hot Meals Act passed in Illinois last July, and last May, Maryland lawmakers adopted a three-year pilot of their own Restaurant Meals Program. Neither provision has been approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Eater takes a closer look at the efforts here. And if you want to help in the meantime, you can find your nearest homeless social service agency here.