Hot bars are a magical part of grocery stores that allow shoppers to scoop up containers of mac and cheese, pints of tomato soup, or whole rotisserie chickens.
But they’re off-limits to people using food stamps.
The reason is precisely that the food is warm and already prepared—a justification that’s often derided as cruel, anti-poor, and arbitrary. Ever since the ’70s, when Congress modified the food stamp program’s definitions to exclude hot foods for most welfare recipients, the same benefits that apply to a box of Kraft, a can of Campbell’s, or a bag of frozen nuggets don’t extend to the hot, ready-to-eat meals.
And that pisses people off.
“Normal, great country,” one New York City public defender wrote of the rule in a viral tweet last week, which featured a photo of a sticker reading “NO HOT FOOD WITH EBT” on a deli case of fries, sandwiches, and sides. (EBT, or electronic benefits transfer, refers to the system of payment used by people on food stamps, formally called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP benefits.)
Some retail and grocery store workers chimed in on Twitter last week to say they’ve rung up hot food as cold, anyway, just to ensure shoppers could pay with their government benefits.
Another person shared a photo of their local gas station’s sign telling customers they could only purchase something cold on food stamps but could heat it up in the microwave after purchasing it. The rule didn’t make sense to everyone.
Hot food isn’t the only item that SNAP recipients can't buy: Alcohol, cigarettes, medicine, live animals, cleaning supplies, makeup, and pet food are also off limits, just to name a few.
But the idea behind the temperature rule is, in part, that hot, prepared food is generally more expensive. SNAP is supposed to help provide a low-cost diet to people that need assistance meeting their nutritional needs, and each dollar is supposed to “really count,” according to Tracy Roof, an associate professor of political science at the University of Richmond.
“What’s kind of built into it is the idea that you shouldn’t be getting advantages that, say, a struggling lower-middle-class family is unable to get; if they can’t afford prepared food, then somebody on food stamps shouldn’t be able to afford prepared food,” Roof said.
Exceptions to the rule do exist: Elderly people can use food stamps to purchase prepared food from certain organizations, while homeless people can purchase hot food from shelters and soup kitchens. Some homeless, elderly, or disabled people can even use their food stamps at authorized restaurants if their home state opts into an initiative called the Restaurant Meals Program. During times of natural disaster and severe weather, state governors have also requested federal waivers to ensure people could use their food stamps on hot meals at certain retailers.
Any other changes, though, would likely require action from Congress. In December Democratic U.S. Reps. Grace Meng and Bobby Rush joined with Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick to introduce a bill allowing SNAP benefits to be used for hot foods and certain prepared foods.
“I think there’s room for certainly lessening the regulations to allow some prepared food,” Roof said. “Some things just don’t make sense—that you can buy a frozen meal from the freezer section and go home and put it in the microwave, and that’s OK, but if you prepare a salad at the salad bar, that’s not. The level of convenience there is about the same, and probably even the cost, but one is prohibited and one is acceptable.”
In Craig Gundersen’s 25 years researching the program, however, he hasn’t heard much discussion about whether it should be entirely eradicated.
“In my opinion, it’s a dumb, dumb rule,” said Gundersen, who’s a professor at Baylor University.
One possible reason why: Beginning a discussion on what SNAP should or shouldn’t look like opens up the possibility of “nanny-state people” cracking down on SNAP recipients’ choices even harder, Gundersen said. For example, Michael Bloomberg wanted to block New York City food stamp recipients from purchasing sugary drinks and soda when he was mayor, and politicians on both sides of the aisle have attempted to stop the program from applying to “junk food.”
“A lot of people on the coasts, especially in the Northeast, love to tell poor people how to lead their lives and what they should be eating,” Gundersen said.
And there’s reason to fear any big conversations around what SNAP should cover: More restrictive welfare programs don’t always work well for poor people, according to Gundersen. For example, the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, better known as WIC, heavily regulates what users are allowed to purchase in an effort to ensure families receive specific nutrients. That means people are limited to brown rice instead of white rice and whole-grain bread rather than white. While WIC has great perks, including free infant formula, such barriers can keep people from tapping into the program.
In comparison, SNAP is pretty free-wheeling—and immensely beneficial. The program covers around 42 million Americans, many of them families with children. As of October, the average monthly benefit was around $243, according to government data, which is higher than usual, due to special pandemic-era allotments in most states that are slated to last for the duration of the public health emergency.
While changes could—and should—be made to SNAP, according to some experts and advocates, the risk of making the program cover even less items might be too great.
“I’m against these restrictions,” Gundersen said. “But it could be a lot worse.”
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