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All About The Restaurant Meals Program

All About The Restaurant Meals Program

Have you heard of the Restaurant Meals Program? This program is authorized by the federal United States Government and helps low income people purchase restaurant meals when they are unable to safely cook their own meals at home.

In this ultimate guide about the RMP, we will address all of the things you need to know. We’ll talk about how this program started, why it exists, what states allow it, what restaurants accept it, and how you can use it.

What is the Restaurant Meals Program?

The Restaurant Meals Program is part of the federal Food Stamps Act. It is a program that allows people who cannot cook at home to purchase hot, ready-to-eat food from local restaurants using their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, or food stamps) benefits.

The program is not available in all areas or to all EBT users. It is a limited program that is designed to eliminate hunger for vulnerable populations who may not be able to use their SNAP food benefits effectively.

What are the rules of the Restaurant Meals Program?

This program is remarkably complicated and there are a lot of rules for users, states and participating restaurants. It’s actually quite complicated.

First, the program is only available for users who are unable to cook their own meals at home. The federal law makes it clear that this program can only be used by people who are elderly, disabled, or homeless. However, some states have interpreted homeless broadly and include people who are living in shelters, transitional housing, or even living with friends. The eligibility guidelines can actually be a bit confusing.

Second, each state can decide for itself whether or not to participate. Just because it’s authorized by federal law does not mean that it is available everywhere. Some states have decided not to implement it because it is too expensive or burdensome. It does take quite a while to develop the program, after all.

Third, each and every restaurant location has to be approved to participate in the program. This is what makes the program so complicated. It’s not like McDonald’s can apply and have every McDonald’s location accept EBT. Each individual location and address must apply and go through the certification process in order to accept those payments.

For details, visit this list of restaurants that accept EBT.

How did the Restaurant Meals Program start?

The Food Stamp Act of 1977 created the Restaurant Meals Program. Thus, this program is as old as the food stamps program itself! The history of the program is actually very interesting.

In the Act, the government explained that the food stamps program had several goals:

  1. Food stamps were intended to increase the food purchasing power of low income households.
  2. Food stamps were intended to reduce hunger and malnutrition in low income households.
  3. Food stamps were intended to distribute the Nation’s agricultural abundance and agricultural economy.

The goal was to help low income families purchase food to alleviate hunger and help improve their nutrition. As a side benefit, the program also boosted the country’s agricultural economy.

There are exceptions to the rules about hot food.

Most people are familiar with the rules around food stamps that say you can only buy food for home consumption. You aren’t allowed to buy alcohol, tobacco, hot foods or hot products that are ready to eat. That’s quoted a lot… but the actual text of the Act is a bit different.

“Food” means (1) any food or food product for home consumption except alcoholic beverages, tobacco, and hot foods or hot food products ready for immediate consumption other than those authorized pursuant to clauses (3), (4), (5), (7), (8), and (9) of this subsection…

Food Stamps Act of 1977, Section 3(g)

As you can see, the actual rules have a lot of exceptions to them. The Restaurant Meals Program is covered by Clauses 3 and 9, so we’ll start with those.

“In the case of those persons who are sixty years of age or over or who receive supplemental security income benefits or disability and blindness payments under title I, II, X, XIV, or XVI of the Social Security Act and their spouses, meals prepared by and served in senior’s centers, apartment buildings occupied primarily by such persons, public or private establishments that contract with the appropriate agency of the State to offer meals for such persons at concessional prices, and meals prepared for and served to residents of federally subsidized housing for the elderly…”

Food Stamps Act of 1977, Section 3(g)(3)

This section clearly indicates that public and private establishments, such as restaurants, can contact with state agencies to offer meals to seniors and disabled people through the food stamps program.

Access to homeless individuals is provided in Clause 9, which states:

In the case of households that do not reside in permanent dwellings and households that have no fixed mailing address, meals prepared for and served by a public or private nonprofit establishment (approved by an appropriate State or local agency) that feeds such individuals and by private establishments that contract with the appropriate agency of the State to offer meals for such individuals at concessional prices.

Food Stamps Act of 1977, Section 3(g)(9)

Meals on Wheels can accept EBT, too.

Clause 4 is worded similarly but actually applies to programs like Meals on Wheels that deliver meals directly to seniors and disabled people in their homes.

“In the case of persons sixty years of age or over and persons who are physically or mentally handicapped or otherwise so disabled that they are unable adequately to prepare all of tehir meals, meals prepared for and delivered to them (and their spouses) at their home by a public or private nonprofit organization or by a private establishment that contracts with the appropriate State agency to perform such services at concessional prices…”

Food Stamps Act of 1977, Section 3(g)(4)

In accordance with the program’s overall goal of reducing hunger, it makes sense to allow services like Meals on Wheels to deliver meals to people who rely on food stamps benefits.

There are other exceptions, too.

Of course, there are further exceptions outlined in Clauses 5, 7 and 8. Although they don’t directly relate to the Restaurant Meals Program, I’ll outline them here:

  • Clause 5 states that narcotics addicts and alcoholics, and their children, can use their benefits to receive meals prepared and served through rehabilitation or treatment programs.
  • Clause 7 states that blind and disabled recipients can receive meals from public or private group homes where they are a resident.
  • Clause 8 states that women and children can use their benefits for meals provided by shelters that serve battered women and children.

How does the Restaurant Meals Program work?

The Restaurant Meals Program is a very complicated and controversial program that requires a lot of the states, restaurants, and users that participate in it.

States have to work with the federal government to make a plan.

First, states must work with the federal United States Department of Agriculture to receive approval to implement the program. This can take a long time, since the state government must design and develop a plan for implementing the program in their area.

For example, Governor Hochul signed a bill into law on October 4, 2021, directing New York to implement a Restaurant Meals Program. In January 2023, the state was still in the early stages of negotiating with the federal government. It could be several years before actual EBT users in New York are able to purchase restaurant meals.

On October 4, 2021, Governor Hochul signed a bill into law directing the New York State Office of Temporary and Disability Assistance (OTDA) to begin the work to establish a SNAP Restaurant Meals Program.  OTDA has just begun discussions with the federal government on the design and requirements of the Restaurant Meals Program and towards securing the necessary agreements and authorities to operate such a program.  No further information is available at this time.

NYS SNAP Bureau, via email on January 4, 2023

Once the details are hammered out with the federal government, the state then has to start processing applications from restaurants who want to participate. This paperwork can take a long time to process.

Restaurants have to meet certain requirements.

Restaurants have to work out an agreement with the state and then apply with the federal government for authorization. It’s a lot of paperwork and it creates a lot of obligations for the restaurant owners.

For example, restaurant owners must state that they will never accept SNAP benefits from someone who is not authorized to use them and they will never accept SNAP benefits as payment for ineligible items. However, this can be very complicated and difficult to monitor. Although the money is nice, some restaurant owners won’t think the additional regulation and paperwork is worth it.

It’s pretty straightforward for the EBT users.

Fortunately, the program is fairly easy for users. You just need to confirm your eligibility and make sure the restaurants you visit are able to process EBT benefits. The hardest part is knowing if you’re eligible and making sure the restaurant location can process EBT.

In order to be eligible, you must meet the following requirements:

  • You must be unable to cook food at home because you are elderly, disabled or homeless. There is a broad definition of homelessness.
  • You must live in an area that has authorized the Restaurant Meals Program.
  • You must only purchase food from restaurants that have been approved to accept SNAP benefits.

If you are eligible, your EBT card should automatically work at the restaurants that have been approved to accept those benefits. The USDA has stated that you should be automatically enrolled in this program if you are eligible. If you are eligible and your card does not automatically work, you will need to follow up with your caseworker.

 SNAP clients who are eligible will have an EBT card that is coded by the state to allow their cards to be accepted at participating restaurants. An EBT card will automatically be declined if the SNAP client is not eligible.

USDA Restaurant Meals Program Q&A

Where can you use the Restaurant Meals Program?

As of the time of this writing, there are 12 states that have implemented the Restaurant Meals Program. Some states, like California and Arizona, have hundreds of restaurants that offer meals to eligible households. Most them have only a few restaurants in certain areas.

However, this situation is continuously evolving. More states are adding programs. Restaurants are continuously being removed and added in the states that offer them.

In order to make sure you’re getting the latest, most up-to-date information about this program, you will need to visit this list of participating states and restaurants that accept EBT for details. You can also check our guide on how to tell if a restaurant takes EBT!

Frequently Asked Questions about the Restaurant Meals Program

With a program as complicated as this, it’s natural to have questions. We’ve answered the most common ones here.

Should people be allowed to buy restaurant meals with EBT?

It’s important for people who cannot safely cook or store food at home to be able to eat. That’s why the federal Food Stamps Act authorizes the Restaurant Meals Program for specific users.

How can I get my state to offer the Restaurant Meals Program?

Each state can decide whether or not to offer the Restaurant Meals Program. If your state does not currently offer it, contact your state legislators and ask them to enact a Restaurant Meals Program in your area.

Why doesn’t this restaurant accept EBT?

Restaurants have to go through a complex application and certification process in order to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program. That’s why some Subway locations accept EBT and others don’t, for example.

Nicole is the owner and lead researcher for Low Income Relief. She has over 20 years of professional research and writing experience, and she has been solely dedicated to investigating low income topics for the last 10 years. Nicole started Low Income Relief after a personal experience with poverty. When her husband was medically discharged from the US Army, their family experienced tremendous financial hardship. Nicole was able to gather help from multiple community agencies and move into a nearby low income housing unit in just two weeks! Since then, Nicole has been dedicated to helping low income families in crisis. She regularly spends hundreds of hours combing through countless resources to make sure that Low Income Relief has the most comprehensive and complete resource directories on the internet today. Prior to starting Low Income Relief, Nicole worked as a novelist, journalist, ghostwriter and content creator. Her work has been featured in various print and online publications, including USA Today, The Daily Herald, The Chronicle and more. Her work has also been featured by Google for Publishers and other leading industry publications.

Jessica Aravena

Thursday 19th of January 2023

Would like to know if NJ has rmp passed law Cool thanx

Catherine Marucci

Thursday 19th of January 2023

Hi Jessica. New Jersey is not participating in the Restaurant Meals Program yet. Here's more info: