By Samiksha Manjani
January 6, 2023
The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (“SNAP”) (formerly known as food stamps) in the United States has historically served two goals: (1) providing low-income Americans with food and (2) encouraging the consumption of surplus food items, which supports the domestic agricultural economy. These two goals are so intertwined that SNAP continues to be managed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and is renewed every five years as part of the omnibus Farm Bill.
Since its first iteration in 1939 until now, SNAP has changed what foods qualify under the program. Notably, since the 1964 Farm Bill, Congress has disqualified SNAP benefits from being used on hot foods prepared for consumption on site. The result: if a person does not have the ability to cook, warm up, or safely store food, then their nutrition is limited to items that can be eaten without cooking. Put differently, a family relying on SNAP could buy a bag of frozen, breaded chicken, but they would not be able to buy a hot rotisserie chicken.
Congress has put forward a few reasons why this mind-boggling paradox exists. First, SNAP was created primarily to combat food production surpluses, which results in crop prices falling below costs of production and puts American farmers out of business. Therefore, SNAP-qualifying foods have traditionally been raw ingredients. Second, hot, prepared foods are generally more expensive, and SNAP is supposed to provide a low-cost diet, where every dollar counts, to people that need assistance meeting their nutritional needs. Third, during a debate on the 1977 Food Stamp Act, the House Agricultural Committee reasoned that, if fast food restaurants could not redeem food stamps, then grocery stores should not be given an unfair advantage.
Congress’s reasoning for preventing SNAP recipients from accessing hot meals is cruel and classist. As of June 2022, nearly 41 million Americans, or 21 million American households, rely on SNAP benefits. Since SNAP’s first iteration in 1939, Americans’ shopping and eating habits have evolved. Congress must recognize that low-income Americans also need the convenience of faster meal-preparation as they juggle more responsibilities. Approximately a third of families who received SNAP benefits had two or more people working in the household, and more than three quarters of those families had at least one worker. Allowing the purchase of hot foods would give these individuals the same flexibility that other Americans depend on, without undermining the fundamental goals of the program. A $5 rotisserie chicken could go a long way for a low-income family.
 Nicole Pepperl, Putting the ‘Food’ in Food Stamps: Food Eligibility in the Food Stamps Program from 1939 to 2012, 2 (Apr. 2, 2012),
 See What is the Farm Bill?, Nat’l Sustainable Agric. Coal., https://sustainableagriculture.net/our-work/campaigns/fbcampaign/what-is-the-farm-bill/ (last visited Oct. 16, 2022) (explaining that the farm bill covers programs ranging from crop insurance for farmers to healthy food access for low-income families, from beginning farmer training to support for sustainable farming practices; the farm bill sets the stage for America’s food and farm systems, serving farmers, consumers, and the natural environment alike).
 See Pepperl, supra note 1, at 2.
 Id. at 10.
 Alex Marisa, No Kitchen, No Hot Meals with SNAP Benefits, Blanchet House, https://blanchethouse.org/no-kitchen-means-no-hot-food-for-homeless-with-snap/.
 Emma Ockerman, Why Can’t You Buy Hot Meals With Food Stamps?, Vice (Feb. 2, 2022, 8:33 AM), https://www.vice.com/en/article/g5qd4b/hot-meals-food-stamps.
 See Christopher Klein, How Did Food Stamps Begin?, History (Aug. 27, 2019), https://www.history.com/news/food-stamps-great-depression (discussing how the SNAP Program was created for Americans to buy surplus fod items during the Great Depression).
 See Ockerman, supra note 6 (arguing that built into that reasoning is that poor people should not get advantages that a lower-middle-class family could not get).
 See Committee on Examination of the Adequacy of Food Resources and SNAP Allotments et al., Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Examining the Evidence to Define Benefit Adequacy 43 (Julie A. Caswell & Ann L. Yaktine, eds., 2013) (debating whether SNAP benefits could be used in fast food restaurants like McDonalds and Kentucky Fried Chicken; ultimately deciding that it could not and upholding the general ban on hot, prepared foods).
 USDA, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program: Number of Persons Participating (Sept. 9, 2022), https://fns-prod.azureedge.us/sites/default/files/resource-files/29SNAPcurrPP-9.pdf.
 SNAP Hot Foods, Nat’l Ass’n of Convenience Stores: NACS Daily News (March 25, 2022), https://www.convenience.org/Advocacy/Issues/SNAP/SNAP-Hot-Foods.
 Tracy A. Loveless, Most Families that Received SNAP Benefits in 2018 had at Least One Person Working, U.S. Census Bureau (Mar. 25, 2022), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2020/07/most-families-that-received-snap-benefits-in-2018-had-at-least-one-person-working.html.
 SNAP Hot Foods Bill Seeks to Lift Sales Restriction, Nat’l Ass’n of Convenience Stores: NACS Daily News (Dec. 22, 2021), https://www.convenience.org/Media/Daily/2021/Dec/22/1-SNAP-Hot-Foods-Bill-Seeks-Lift-Restriction_GR.
 Rachel Treisman, Inflation is Raising Prices on Almost Everything, Except Rotisserie Chicken, NPR (June 7, 2022, 6:43 PM), https://www.npr.org/2022/06/07/1103451833/rotisserie-chicken-price-inflation.