The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which funds and runs SNAP, has since 1977 allowed states to make restaurants available to food stamp holders over 60 years of age with proof of disability or have a homeless certificate.

For many years, anti-hunger advocates have maintained limiting SNAP to groceries doesn’t do much to help homeless recipients without kitchens or those physically unfit to cook. The provision of freedom to buy food from the hot bar at a store, or a participating restaurant, could be “the difference between eating and not eating”.

Presently 11 counties in California, State of Arizona and one county in Rhode Island partake in the program. Some other states have participated in the past but eradicated it. Michigan, for example, abolished its program in 2013. The state of Illinois has never joined before. The existing law in Illinois stands, food stamp recipients can use SNAP vouchers at grocery stores, but not at restaurants.

Illinois House Bill 3343, the ‘Restaurant Meals Program’ 

  • In May 2019, the US state of Illinois proposed a new bill that would allow Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) vouchers to buy fast food, especially those food stamp receivers who are elderly, disabled or homeless.
  • All states have the power to choose the Restaurant Meals Program at participating restaurants. But few have chosen to do so. If House Bill 3343 is signed into law, Illinois would join only four other states to execute some version of the program. It would be only the second state—after Arizona—to approve the program statewide, rather than for some municipalities or counties.
  • The bill called “Restaurant Meals Program bill” headed to Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office for consideration and endorsement after winning state Senate approval.
  • The bill aims to add Illinois to a shortlist of US states that have chosen a federally sponsored program allowing certain SNAP beneficiaries to use food stamps at restaurants.
  • The bill also contains that the restaurants, that must be offering discounted menus to be eligible, can willingly apply to participate and are not mandatorily to enroll.
  • The Illinois Senate voted in favor of the bill 48-1. The House in late March approved it 75-18. Those against it generally wanted to limit café access to qualified individuals rather than their entire family.

Motivation

The bill is drafted with an understanding that it can be challenging and risky for dispossessed people without access to cooking supplies or storage space, especially for some elderly or disabled who may not be able to cook safely in their kitchens.

Although soup kitchens and other suppliers tender free hot meals, they have limited hours for the offer and narrow selection so individuals with certain allergies or nighttime work hours can’t always avail them. As a result, many people make do with a bag of chips.

Making it easier for people to take a meal, giving SNAP recipients access to restaurants,  gives them a chance to be part of the wider community.

According to Niya Kelly, state legislative director at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless., whose organization led the legislative effort alongside the Heartland Alliance and the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law/ “There’s a certain dignity of being able to sit down somewhere knowing you bought your food and having that space to be able to do that”.

The proposed bill instructs Illinois’ Department of Human Services, responsible to administer SNAP in the state, to execute the restaurant program latest by Jan. 1, 2020. In reality, the legislation is not needed for the agency to decide on, it protects the move from being easily upturned by future administrations.

Implications

There are over 1.8 million people across 0.9 million households receiving SNAP benefits, according to the state’s official statistics. The restaurant program would concern 14% of those families who have disabled among them, 10% with elderly and less than 1% who is homeless.

In Arizona, Subway, Jack in the Box and Carl’s Jr. are among the restaurants that have opted to accept SNAP, according to Arizona’s Department of Economic Security.

Rep. Sonya Harper, a Chicago Democrat, chief sponsor of Illinois’ bill, said she anticipates few fast-food chains locally to be interested in participating. She rather focused on the recipients to use these benefits too but cooked foods from the stores they already are familiar to shopping

Some of the discussion about making restaurants entitled for SNAP involves apprehensions that people will use their benefits on unhealthy food. But people who live in poverty are known to budget carefully. As one expert in favor of the bill said, “it is not our responsibility or our job to judge how folks survive.”

State Representative Tom Demmer (R-Dixon) who supported the bill, expressed his justifiable concern that on average the prices of foods at restaurants are more than what it might be at the grocery store and so, there’s a fear of exchange there. It is pertinent to make sure people aren’t running out of benefits at the end of the month.

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