WASHINGTON (CN) — House Democrats on Tuesday introduced a bill that would expand where Americans can use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits to include restaurants and other locations.
The bill — the SNAP CARRY Act — is in part a reaction to the lack of people using the Restaurant Meals Program, which allows for food-stamp benefits to be applied to discount meals at restaurants for seniors, disabled and homeless individuals.
While only a select number of states take advantage of the voluntary program, the legislation would make it easier for businesses to participate and during a national emergency — like an outbreak of Covid-19 — expanding the program to all SNAP recipients. The bill would also give authority to the Secretary of Agriculture to authorize additional businesses and food retailers to participate in the SNAP program.
California Representative Jimmy Panetta introduced the bill Tuesday, and Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy introduced a companion bill in the other body. The Democrats highlighted the benefits of expanding the program during the global Covid-19 outbreak. As of Wednesday, the virus has infected over a million Americans and the U.S. death toll has ballooned over 58,900.
“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,” Panetta said in a statement.
During the pandemic, the number of Americans applying for SNAP benefits has dramatically increased in some states. The Colorado Department of Humans Services reported weeks ago it had received double the number of assistance requests this year than that time last year. As Covid-19 infections swallowed the U.S. in mid-March, the government granted waivers to increasing available benefits to SNAP recipients as that need increased.
Jessica Bartholow, a policy advocate with the Western Center on Law & Poverty — a California-based support group focused on legal advocation of people in poverty — said in an email Wednesday her organization has worked for years to expand the Restaurant Meal Program’s reach. Working with state representatives, the organization has helped lobby to change state laws through the Golden State’s Calfresh Restaurant Meal Program, helping to expand awareness and access to the program.
“Still, the federal law limits the ability of the state to serve all people who need it during the pandemic,” Bartholow said. “Also, other states which want to offer the program are limited in their ability to do so. California has asked for a waiver to allow the state to serve all SNAP recipients through RMP during the recession but the [U.S. Department of Agriculture] hasn’t approved it.”
Wesley Hussey, a professor of government at California State University, Sacramento, said in an interview Wednesday even though California is one of the three states that voluntarily expanded SNAP benefits to apply to certain restaurants, it hasn’t been used much.
Bureaucratic red tape that included restaurant inspection requirements and other roadblocks hampered the expansion in the Golden State, Hussey said. Even when counties did use the program, access is largely limited to fast food.
“There’s 58 counties in California and only 10 actually use it,” Hussey said. “Almost to a T, every single restaurant that is part of this is fast food — Pizza Hut, Subway, Taco Bell.”
The USDA has not warmed to other breaks for SNAP recipients. For example, this month the department’s Food and Nutrition Services — the agency responsible for distributing the benefits — refused to waive a requirement for students to work a minimum number of hours in order to qualify.
“FNS recognizes the difficulty placed on states as they work to process increased caseloads to ensure that all Americans have access to food during this difficult time,” the agency said in a statement.
Sean Kennedy, executive vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s Public Affairs office, applauded the bill’s introduction as a way to help “keep America’s restaurant doors open.”
“During this unprecedented crisis, the restaurant industry is working alongside anti-hunger groups to ensure our nation’s restaurants can serve as important food access points,” Kennedy said in a statement.