There are lots of misconceptions about food stamps out there. One of the most popular is that you can use your food stamps or EBT Card to buy food at fast food restaurants. In this post, we will explain why some restaurants take food stamps or EBT and why they are approved to do so. We will also talk about the Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) and show why it is targeted at a select group of food stamp recipients. We will then address the misconceptions about the program.
This Post Will Cover:
- What You Can Buy with EBT
- USDA’s Restaurant Meals Program
- States That Operate the RMP
What You Can Buy with EBT
The United States Department of Agriculture, the federal agency that oversees the food stamps program sets the guidelines on what can be purchased with food stamps.
Here is what the USDA allows food stamp recipients to buy their EBT Card:
- breads and cereals;
- fruits and vegetables;
- meats, fish and poultry; and
- dairy products.
- Seeds and plants which produce food for the household to eat.
Food stamp beneficiaries are not allowed to use their EBT Card to purchase the following items.
- Beer, wine, liquor, cigarettes or tobacco
- Any nonfood items, such as:
- pet foods
- soaps, paper products
- household supplies
- Vitamins and medicines
- Food that will be eaten in the store
- Hot foods
As you can see, food stamp recipients are only allowed to buy food intended to be made at home.
This means that you cannot use your EBT card to buy prepared food, including deli food, hot food or food at any restaurant, like fast food. However, there are exceptions.
Why Some Restaurants Take Food Stamps
As we have explained above, you cannot use food stamps benefits to buy prepared food, including food at restaurants, unless you have been approved to do so.
The Restaurant Meals Program is a special program by the USDA that was started in 1977 as part of the Food Stamp Act.
The goal of the program is to help fight hunger by assisting people who are unable to prepare meals at home or in a traditional kitchen setting.
The decision to establish a restaurant meals program is made entirely at the state level. Once a state is approved by the USDA to run the program, they are responsible for all aspects of the program.
Only food stamps recipients who are elderly, disabled, or homeless are eligible for the Restaurant Meals Program. In addition, they must have gross income below the federal poverty line.
Participating restaurants must meet program requirements to be authorized to process food stamp transactions as a restaurant.
Restaurants participating in the program are prohibited from charging a sales tax or meal tax on prepared foods purchased with food stamp benefits.
States that offer the Restaurant Meal Program
State participation in the Restaurant Meal Program is very low. To date, only a handful of states offer the program – California, Arizona, Rhode Island, and Florida. Here is what each state is offering:
In California, the RMP serves the elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. The program is offered in the following counties:
- Los Angeles County
- San Francisco County
- Alameda County
- Sacramento County
- Santa Clara County
- San Diego County
Arizona offers the program statewide and serves the elderly, homeless, and disabled populations.
Rhode Island began a limited pilot program on August 1, 2011 that only allows approved elderly, homeless, and disabled food stamps recipients to use their EBT cards at select Subway restaurant locations.
In 2009, Florida began operating a pilot program in one county and has a total of only 14 restaurants participating. Furthermore, the program in Florida is ONLY available to the homeless. Florida has not expanded the pilot to cover any other population.
For a detailed list of participating restaurants in each state, see our detailed article on the Restaurant Meals Program.
Misconceptions About the RMP
The idea that most food stamps recipients can buy fast food with their benefits is simply not true.
They can only do that if they are homeless, elderly or disabled and have been approved to do so.
You cannot walk into any fast food restaurant with your EBT card and purchase fast food with food stamps.
First, for the restaurant to be able to process that transaction, they have to be approved to do so. If they are not approved to take EBT, you will not be able to use your EBT card there.
Second, if you see someone claiming they were able to use their EBT food stamps card at a non-RMP restaurant, chances are they are involved in some kind of fraud and you can report that activity.
There are however EBT cards used by Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) beneficiaries that can be used at restaurants without restrictions.
That is because TANF is a cash benefit program. Therefore EBT cards with TANF dollars act like regular debit card, and therefore can be used at approved locations, including fast food restaurants.