A bill introduced in Congress on Tuesday would expand an underused part of the food stamps program to help feed millions of out-of-work Americans while assisting restaurants across the country that are struggling to survive a pandemic that has dramatically reduced their revenues or shut them down altogether.

Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Rep. Jimmy Panetta (D-Calif.) introduced legislation in their respective chambers to expand the Restaurant Meals Program, a little-known initiative that allows seniors, disabled and homeless people to use their Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to purchase discounted restaurant meals because these folks often can’t cook for themselves or don’t have access to a kitchen. The RMP is voluntary for states, and to date, only about three use the program, including California, Arizona and Rhode Island. The low participation rate, in part, reflects the public health concern that fast-food chains would mostly sign up for the program, affecting the well-being of the people who receive benefits, Murphy said.

But as the unemployment rate swells, as grocery store shelves grow more depleted and as public transportation continues to pose a threat for low-income Americans who need it to visit supermarkets, states have been looking to SNAP for solutions. Governors in Louisiana and Texas have both said they would like to see the RMP expanded to feed their citizens and to bolster the hobbled hospitality industry. This month, several groups, including the National Council of Chain Restaurants and the National Restaurant Association, wrote to the U.S. Agriculture Department to recommend that Secretary Sonny Perdue open the RMP to more SNAP recipients and more restaurants.

“The Restaurant Meals Program has been serving SNAP participants in a few states and counties for many years, but despite the value that this program has to the people it serves, its reach has been limited,” the groups wrote in the letter. “Expanding food access to meet the urgent need is possible, but will require action by the department, and quickly.”

The proposed legislation — the SNAP Covid-19 Anti-Hunger Restaurant Relief for You Act of 2020, or the SNAP Carry Act — would do just that. During a public health emergency or a declared national disaster, the legislation would widen the Restaurant Meals Program to, theoretically at least, all 38 million people who already receive SNAP benefits. It would also make it easier for states and food retail businesses to participate. States would still need permission from the USDA to join the program, but Perdue would have the authority to waive a stipulation requiring that an agency (and sometimes a state) official visit a restaurant before it can participate.

“I had never heard of the Restaurant Meals Program until the beginning of this current crisis,” Murphy told The Washington Post. “I was doing research in February and March, looking for creative ways to get food to people in need, and I came across California’s experience with the Restaurant Meals Program.

“It struck me immediately as a win-win: as a way to give more people access to more food options and a way to bring revenue into restaurants. There are very few no-brainers in federal policy these days, and this seemed to be one of them,” the senator added.

The National Restaurant Association quickly threw its weight behind the legislation.

“In this unprecedented moment in history, restaurants want to continue to support their communities as an essential part of the food supply chain,” said Sean Kennedy, the group’s executive vice president of public affairs. “We applaud the introduction of the SNAP Carry Act, and look forward to working alongside anti-hunger groups to ensure that all people, including those that participate in SNAP, have as many food access points as possible during times of crisis.”

Before filing the bill, Murphy said he tried to work through Perdue and the USDA to implement the necessary changes, but he never heard back. The Trump administration has given mixed signals about its commitment to the SNAP program in recent months: In December, the administration finalized rules to tighten work requirements for SNAP, potentially cutting hundreds of thousands of people from the program. But this month, Perdue announced an emergency package that would increase SNAP benefits by $2 billion per month.

Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, which oversees that SNAP program, did not immediately respond to an email for comment. But Murphy said he knows his bill will face resistance in the Republican-controlled Senate. It could also face intense lobbying from industries that might lose a portion of their SNAP money, such as convenience stores or supermarkets.

“A Republican Senate is not looking to do a lot of favors these days for people who are on SNAP benefits,” Murphy said. “But there are a lot of Republican senators who want to help restaurants, and this bill helps people who are hungry, but it also creates a whole bunch of new customers for restaurants. So I think that angle will attract Republican support.”

An expanded RMP could also be another tool — along with loans and grants, limited carryout and delivery services and public donations — that may help restaurants navigate their way through the coronavirus pandemic. In the past, the limited pool of SNAP customers (seniors, homeless and disabled people) probably wasn’t large enough to entice more restaurants (other than fast-food chains and the like) to participate in the program. But with potentially millions more SNAP recipients taking part in an expanded RMP, it would likely attract a “wide variety” of restaurants that need the extra revenue, Murphy said.

Panetta represents the central coast of California — including the Salinas Valley, the “Salad Bowl of the World” — where agriculture is the region’s top industry. More than 9 percent of the households in the area also receive SNAP benefits, according to the senator’s office.

“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. We can help achieve those objectives by allowing people to use their SNAP benefits to purchase low-cost prepared meals from restaurants,” Panetta said in a statement to The Post. “The legislation really is a common-sense strategy to provide more options to food insecure individuals while simultaneously helping our food service industry.”

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