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Can You Use Food Stamps At Subway – Esperanza Fonseca tried to get her life back on track. It was 2017, and she had recently lost her job and apartment in Southern California, and was living out of a friend’s car. After signing up for SNAP food assistance benefits in her county, she tried to use her benefits card to buy the salmon meal special at Ralph’s but was refused.
“They told me they could only sell me raw fish. They couldn’t sell me anything cooked or prepared. It was against the law,” Fonseca said. “And at that moment, it was really humiliating because there is no honor in it. Without access to a kitchen, there was no way I could cook food.”
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Fonseca was denied a hot meal because the district did not have a Restaurant Meal Program (RMP), an obscure provision in the federal food stamp law that allows food assistance programs in California and elsewhere to allow SNAP recipients to buy food to use in preparing meals at home — a requirement that supporters say discriminates against people who cannot cook .
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Fonseca, who was a 2019 Women’s Policy Institute Fellow, worked with her teammates to focus on expanding the program nationwide. Now, their efforts seem to be paying off. A bill signed into law in October 2019 would expand the RMP to SNAP users across California, allowing people over age 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 to get, and it would also get a lot of people out of hunger,” Fonseca, who is now the deputy director of the national organization at United for Respect, told Civil Eats. “We know that many people who have SNAP benefits are not taking full advantage of their benefits because they live in an area without the restaurant meal plan.”
The expansion of the RMP throughout California is the product of a considerable collective effort. “A lot of people have been working for two decades to try to make it available to everyone who needed it in the country,” said Jessica Bartolo, a policy advocate at the Western Center for Justice and Poverty, who in 2012 produced a report that advocates used to expand the program to where it is now. Currently operates in 10 of the 58 counties of California.
Along with California’s recent victory, two other states are trying to implement their own RMPs. But supporters there fear that the recent changes in food aid policy may introduce obstacles to the implementation of the program in their countries.
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Food access experts say the recent focus on RMP, which made its way into federal food assistance policy in 1971 (though some say 1977), is a response to demographic changes occurring nationwide as the nation’s population ages. The number of adults over 65 is expected to nearly double to 95 million by 2060.
“We’re seeing renewed interest because of the aging population,” said Ellen Wallinger, legal director of the Food Research and Action Center.
“We’re also seeing a renewed interest unfortunately because of the number of people who are homeless and a new appreciation for the fact that people may have difficulty accessing food in the traditional way of buying and preparing,” Wellinger said.
Advocates for people experiencing hunger and homelessness in Illinois and Maryland successfully passed bills that were similar to California’s. And in all three countries, food insecurity among the homeless—as well as awareness of people who may not be able to cook their own meals—are on the list of challenges to alleviating food insecurity.
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Although all three states have legislation on the books authorizing a statewide RMP, they will still need approval from the federal government to operate their programs.
For the handful of states that have experimented with the program in previous years, getting the green light from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), the federal agency that administers SNAP, may not have been an obstacle. But the current efforts come as the USDA appears set to implement policy changes that analysts say could cause millions of adult SNAP recipients to lose eligibility.
In December 2019, the USDA finalized the first-of-its-kind policy. Under the guidelines that will take effect in April, states will have less flexibility to open enrollment for some adults. The USDA estimates that the rule will result in 668,000 people losing eligibility if they do not meet certain work requirements.
“States are asking for large portions of their population to be waived and millions of people who can work continue to receive SNAP benefits,” Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue said in December while announcing the policy change. States should focus on screening people for work ability and providing them with access to work and work programs, the USDA said. Otherwise unemployed adults are only eligible to receive SNAP benefits for three months during a three-year period. While the new rule may not affect people over 60, it could affect efforts to reach people in Fonseca’s situation — those trying to recover from homelessness.
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California currently has a high number 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 Bartolo says Golden State advocates have formed an alliance with local USDA officials who in recent years have encouraged California counties to establish this option for their residents.
Given California’s well-documented homelessness epidemic, “I can’t imagine a scenario where USDA would reject a single restaurant meal program application from our state,” Bartolo said.
With two more federal proposals that could reduce eligibility for up to 3 million adults currently on the table, hunger advocates in Illinois and Maryland don’t share the same confidence.
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 had not received USDA approval. Advocates who worked to pass the bill in the Prairie State say stereotypes about people living in poverty are at the center of the latest federal review of food assistance programs.
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“I don’t want to say it’s not automatic, but we do know there have been some challenges with the current administration and how they view people receiving public benefits and people living in poverty,” says Nia Kelly, state legislative director of the Chicago Coalition on the Homeless.
“There’s a lot of enthusiasm in our country around the prospect of [offering the program], so that’s what makes it particularly frustrating that we’re running into roadblocks at the federal level,” says Nolan Downey, an attorney with the Shriver Poverty Law Center. Although he would not speculate on the reason, he added that the USDA told the state agency “it will not support the program.” The USDA threatened IDHS with fines for overissuing federal food aid to a significant number of people in 2018.
USDA’s Food and Nutrition Services asked IDHS to submit research demonstrating the need for a prepared meal program in Illinois and to show a willingness among food establishments to offer meals to SNAP recipients at a reduced rate, said Meghan Powers, IDHS spokeswoman.
“We have several people working on our implementation plan and we really want to get approval,” Powers said.
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In May 2019, Maryland lawmakers approved a three-year pilot for the state’s restaurant meals program with an expected start date of December 2019, but that too has not received USDA approval.
Careful to explain that the restaurant meals program is not new and that the implementation will not expand SNAP eligibility, Maryland advocates and policymakers say its plan is 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 really able to take advantage of their benefits right now can actually access food,” said Scott Tippen, chief of staff to Maryland state Sen. Clarence Lam.
“Some older people may have difficulty getting groceries to and from the store or preparing them,” Tippen said. “Similarly, some people who are homeless may not have a place to store food … or prepare it.”
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Although the restaurant meal plan has not been the subject of much scholarly research, the plan has been criticized for the types of food establishments that have signed up to participate. In California counties and some other states, licensed 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 variety of vendors and recruit food establishments that can 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.