Esperanza Fonseca was trying to get her life back on track. It was 2017, and she had recently lost her job and her apartment in Southern California, and was living out of a friend’s car. After enrolling for SNAP food-assistance benefits in her county, she tried to use her benefits card to buy the salmon lunch special at a Ralph’s supermarket, but she was refused.
“They told me that they could only sell me raw fish. They couldn’t sell me anything that had been cooked or prepared. It was against the law,” Fonseca said. “And in that moment, it was really humiliating because there’s no dignity in this. Having no access to a kitchen, there was no way I could cook food.”
Fonseca was denied a hot meal because that county did not have a Restaurant Meals Program (RMP), an obscure provision in the federal Food Stamp Act that lets food assistance programs in California and elsewhere allow SNAP recipients to buy prepared foods from restaurants and supermarkets. Since 2003, some of California’s food assistance agencies have used RMPs to make prepared meal purchases an option for people who might otherwise be unable to cook.
Fonseca, who was a Women’s Policy Institute Fellow in 2019, worked with her teammates to focus on expanding the program statewide.
Now, their efforts appear to be having an impact. A bill signed into law in October 2019 will expand the RMP to SNAP users throughout California, allowing people over the age of 60, and people living with disabilities or experiencing homelessness, to buy prepared meals using their EBT cards.
“We decided that this bill idea was the most feasible one to get passed, and it would also lift a lot of people out of hunger,” Fonseca, who is now National Deputy Organizing Director at the nonprofit United for Respect, told Civil Eats. “We know that a lot of people who have SNAP benefits don’t fully utilize their benefits because they live in an area without the restaurant meals program.”
The expansion of the RMP across California is the product of a sizable collective effort. “A lot of people have been working for two decades to try to get this to be available to everybody who needed it in the state,” said Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate at the Western Center on Law & Poverty, which in 2012 coproduced a report that advocates have used to expand the program to where it currently operates in 10 of California’s 58 counties.
Alongside the recent California victory, two other states are trying to implement their own RMPs. But advocates there worry that recent changes to food assistance policy may introduce obstacles to implementing the program in their states.
Using the Restaurant Meals Program to Target Food Insecurity
Food access experts say the recent focus on the RMP, which made its way into federal food assistance policy in 1971 (though some say 1977), is a response to the demographic changes taking place nationwide as the country’s population ages. The number of adults over age 65 is expected to nearly double to 95 million by 2060.
“We’re seeing renewed interest because of the elderly population,” said Ellen Vollinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center.
“We’re also seeing renewed interest unfortunately because of the numbers of people who are homeless and a new appreciation for the fact that people may have difficulty accessing food in the traditional purchase-and-prepare manner,” Vollinger said.
Advocates for people experiencing hunger and homelessness in Illinois and Maryland have successfully passed bills that were similar to California’s. And in all three states, food insecurity among the homelessness—as well as awareness of people who may not be able to cook their meals—are among the list of challenges to alleviating food insecurity.
Even as all three states have legislation on the books authorizing a statewide RMP, they will still need approval from the federal government to get their programs up and running.
For the handful of states that have experimented with the program in prior years, getting the green light from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that administers SNAP, might not have been a hurdle. But the current efforts come at a time when the USDA appears to be set on implementing policy changes that, analysts say, could result in millions of adult SNAP recipients losing eligibility.
In December 2019, the USDA finalized the first of such policies. Under guidelines set to take effect in April, states will have less flexibility for opening enrollment to some adults. The USDA estimates that the rule will result in as many as 668,000 individuals losing eligibility if they don’t meet certain work requirements.
“States are seeking waivers for wide swaths of their population and millions of people who could work are continuing to receive SNAP benefits,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in December while announcing the policy change. States should focus on screening individuals for fitness for work and providing them with access to work and workfare programs, USDA said. Otherwise unemployed adults are only eligible to receive SNAP benefits for three months during a three-year period. Even as the new rule may not impact individuals older than 60, it could affect efforts to reach people in Fonseca’s situation—those trying to recover from homelessness.
California currently has high numbers of people experiencing poverty and homelessness—the highest in the nation. The state also has more than a decade of experience with the RMP, and Bartholow says advocates in the Golden State have made allies with local USDA officials who in past years encouraged California counties to establish this option for their residents.
Considering California’s well-documented epidemic of homelessness, “I can’t imagine a scenario in which USDA would deny a single restaurant meals program request from our state,” Bartholow said.
States Still Waiting for Federal Approval
The Hot Meals Act became public law in Illinois in July 2019 and required the Illinois Department of Human Services (IDHS) to begin operating the program by January 2020. As of mid-January 2020, Illinois hadn’t received USDA approval. Advocates who worked on getting the bill passed in the Prairie State say stereotypes about people living in poverty are at the center of recent federal scrutiny of food assistance programs.
“I don’t want to say that it is an automatic no, but we do know that there have been some challenges with the current administration and how they view people who receive public benefits and people living in poverty,” says Niya Kelly, state legislative director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in our state around the prospect of [offering the program], so that’s what makes it particularly frustrating that we are running into bumps at the federal level,” says Nolan Downey, a staff attorney for the Shriver Center on Poverty Law. While he didn’t want to speculate about the reason, he added that the USDA has told the state agency “it would not be supportive of the program.” The USDA threatened IDHS with fines for over issuing federal food assistance to a significant number of individuals in 2018.
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services has asked the IDHS to submit research that demonstrates the need for a prepared meals program in Illinois as well as show a willingness among food establishments to offer meals to SNAP beneficiaries at a reduced rate, said Meghan Powers, an IDHS spokesperson.
“We have several folks working on our implementation plan and we would really like to receive approval,” Powers said.
In May 2019, Maryland lawmakers approved a three-year pilot for a statewide restaurant meals program with an expected December 2019 start date, but it hasn’t received USDA approval either.
Taking care to explain that the restaurant meals program isn’t new and that implementation won’t expand SNAP eligibility, Maryland advocates and policy makers say its program will be designed to improve access to food among people who face barriers to shopping and cooking.
“The goal was to try to make sure that those people who aren’t able to really use their benefits right now are able to actually access food,” said Scott Tiffen, chief of staff for Maryland State Senator Clarence Lam.
“Some older people may have difficulty bringing groceries to and from the store or preparing them,” Tiffen said. “Similarly, some people who are homeless may not have a place to store food … or to prepare it.”
Beyond Fast Food?
Although the restaurant meals program hasn’t been the subject of much scholarly research, the program has received criticism about the kinds of food establishments that have signed on to participate. In California’s counties and a few other states, authorized restaurants include fast food chains such as Subway, Burger King, Domino’s Pizza, and Jack-in-the-Box.
In a 2013 report, San Francisco County outlined strategies to expand the range of vendors and recruit food establishments that could offer healthy and culturally diverse meals. At the time, 49 of the county’s 64 vendors were fast food chains and the remaining 15 were independent local restaurants.
In 2017, California began requiring food establishments on college campuses to seek approval from USDA to become a restaurant meals program vendor. But gaining that approval hasn’t been straightforward, Jessica Bartholow says.
“The application process is kind of clumsy,” she says. “For example, it asks for the social security number of the owner of the restaurant, Who’s social security number should we put down? Is it the governor’s—because these are state universities? Is it the chancellor of the school?”
USDA’s RMP policy requires food establishments to have a seating area for patrons to consume their meals and restaurants must sign a memorandum of understanding with the local SNAP agency agreeing to offer low-cost meals.
In addition to restaurants, counties in California with RMP’s have reached out to “corner stores” that offer prepared food and “supermarkets with deli counters” to participate.
Maryland advocates say their research indicates interest from potential vendors who offer healthier options. “There are lots of restaurants around the state that might be interested in applying to serve as vendors,” Michael J. Wilson, the director of Maryland Hunger Solutions, says. “I’ve had conversations with The Land of Kush, which does vegan soul food, and they’re interested.”
Even though grocery stores aren’t named eligible vendors in federal policy, Illinois, a state where urban and rural areas have been designated as significantly lacking access to healthy food, wants to expand the options for buying prepared foods beyond restaurants. “We think that the prospect of grocery stores providing hot meals is really exciting,” Downey says. “Once we [get] federal approval, a lot of our outreach is going to be focused on grocery stores because they play such a critical role for folks in those communities.”
“People are doing what America has asked of them. They’re working and going to school and trying to better their future and the future of their kids,” Bartholow says. “They could really benefit from being able to stop by and pick up a hot chicken instead of having to pick up a cold one and cook it at home.”