More restaurants could start taking SNAP benefits

FILE - A sign in a restaurant window reads, " Take Out Only with a Mask" on April 27, 2020 in Jersey City, New Jersey. ( Photo by Arturo Holmes/Getty Images )

With millions of Americans filing for unemployment and food banks struggling to keep up with COVID-19-induced demand, more restaurants may soon be able to allow supplemental nutrition assistance program (SNAP) recipients to use their benefits to purchase meals.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., and Rep. Jimmy Panetta, D-Calif., are proposing legislation to let Americans eligible for SNAP, which is formerly known as food stamps, to use their benefits to buy hot meals at restaurants, which are also struggling to stay open with lost revenue from shuttered dining rooms due to shelter in place orders.

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Generally, restaurants cannot accept SNAP benefits as a form of payment unless states participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, which allows SNAP-eligible elderly, disabled and homeless populations to use their electronic benefit transaction cards to purchase meals. Murphy and Panetta’s legislation, the SNAP CARRY Act, would expand on the restaurant program and waive program requirements to make it easier for states and restaurants to offer subsidized meals during emergencies like the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With so many Americans struggling with hunger and so many restaurants struggling to remain in business during this pandemic, we must do everything we can to ensure that people can eat and those businesses can stay open.  We can help achieve those objectives by allowing people to use their SNAP benefits to purchase low-cost prepared meals from restaurants,” Congressman Panetta said in a statement.

The SNAP CARRY program would only be implemented in states and restaurants that choose to participate, according to the proposed legislation. A restaurant would need to sign a memorandum of understanding with its state or county and offer a low-cost meal option on its menu. It will also need to have a payment system to process electronic SNAP transactions.

“With so many Americans struggling with hunger and so many restaurants struggling to remain in business during this pandemic, we must do everything we can to ensure that people can eat and those businesses can stay open." 

— Congressman Jimmy Panetta (D-California)

Trade associations like the National Restaurant Association, the National Council of Chain restaurants and Congress Hunger Center are supporting the push for the SNAP CARRY Act.

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“Restaurants want to continue to support their communities as an essential part of the food supply chain," Sean Kennedy, a National Restaurant Association spokesman, told Fox Business in a statement. "We applaud the introduction of the SNAP CARRY Act and look forward to working alongside anti-hunger groups to ensure that all people, including those that participate in SNAP, have as many food access points as possible during times of crisis."

RMP, the SNAP restaurant program, has been criticized because SNAP benefits could be used to purchase fast food or unhealthy food. However, advocates for the program argue that with supply chain issues at grocery stores and online retailers, other avenues to help low-income families get food is vital during the health pandemic.

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