The controversial Restaurant Meals Program began when it was authorized by the 1977 Food Stamps Act. However, most people hadn’t heard of it until the late 2010s or even 2020s, when it started making waves as a controversial but strangely necessary program.
The 1977 Food Stamps Act
The program was authorized by the 1977 Food Stamps Act, so it’s been around for a very long time. However, very few users actually know about or understand this program because it is so obscure.
In most cases, people who are approved for EBT are told that they cannot purchase hot food with their benefits. It’s a well-known rule that you can’t purchase hot food that is ready for consumption at the time of sale. So how do people purchase restaurant meals?
It’s because the Restaurant Meals Program is designed for people who cannot store or prepare their own meals at home. People who are disabled, homeless or elderly can use the program to obtain hot food that is ready to eat. This helps them eat while also keeping them safe.
This is all encoded in the original Food Stamps Act of 1977, which said:
“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)
The subsections go on to explain that there are exceptions for adults who are elderly (defined as at least 60 years old), disabled or homeless. These people can purchase means from “private or public establishments that contract with the appropriate agency of the State to offer meals for such persons at concessional prices.”
However, this same act gave states the ability to choose for themselves. The federal government was okay with it, but each state had to decide independently if they wanted to enact this program.
Food Stamps Go Digital
The Restaurant Meals Program wasn’t available widely until food stamps benefits transitioned from actual paper stamps to digital EBT cards. It was just too cumbersome to implement with paper coupons. Once the program migrated to the debit-like plastic cards, it was much easier to authorize the benefits to be used at restaurants.
That’s why the Restaurant Meals Program reached peak popularity in 2003. According to USA Today, the program was available in 19 states in 2003. That’s a lot more states than offer the program today.
Both governments and restaurants saw this program as an opportunity to infuse local restaurants with cash while also ensuring that the country’s most vulnerable populations were well-fed. Unfortunately, not everyone agreed.
Yum Brands Pushed Too Hard
Taxpayers and health advocates were largely unaware of the program until Yum! Brands brought it to the national stage in 2011. The company wanted to push the government to expand the Restaurant Meals Program to more states, no doubt to bolster its own cash flow.
Yum! Brands is the conglomerate that owns many well-known fast food restaurant brands like KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell and The Habit Burger Grill. The company was originally part of PepsiCo.
In states that participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, Yum! Brands restaurants are at the forefront. KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell are all on our list of restaurants that accept EBT. It’s natural that the company wanted to expand that possibility to their stores in other states.
However, their effort backfired dramatically. The US Agriculture Department was understandably opposed to the expansion, since the law had clearly given jurisdiction over the program to the states.
However, the push to authorize it nationwide brought the program to the attention of taxpayers, conservative politicians and health advocates who were unanimously opposed to the program existing at any level at all. Some stated concerns that the restaurant meals were too expensive, others worried they were too unhealthy. There were concerns about waste and abuse and fraud.
So many people voiced their opposition to the program that it shrunk considerably. By 2018, only four states were still operating a Restaurant Meals Program. That means that 15 states dropped out as a result of backlash! That’s a lot.
Revitalized by the Pandemic
The program regained popularity in the 2020s, when multiple states decided to expand the program. Many states announced that they would begin offering the Restaurant Meals Program in the early 2020s.
Some states that had previously resisted implementing the program decided to allow it in order to infuse vulnerable restaurants with extra cash during the pandemic. It was seen as an economical decision, especially given the emergency allotments that provided extra EBT benefits to SNAP households.
As of this writing, many states are still developing their RMP programs. We maintain a list of states that participate in the Restaurant Meals Program for your convenience.
The Future Remains Uncertain
It is unclear what the future will bring for the Restaurant Meals Program. Some states have implemented it, removed it, and re-implemented it. Many have quietly ended their programs without an explanation. It is difficult to forecast the future of this program because of the controversy that surrounds it.