Divided Missouri Senate backs use of food stamps at restaurants

A divided Missouri Senate narrowly passed legislation on Thursday that could allow thousands of elderly, disabled and homeless residents to spend government benefits on food stamps at restaurants — something currently only allowed in a handful of states.

The legislation exposed deep divisions in the Republican-led chamber, where most GOP members voted against what they described as an “expansion of the welfare state,” even as leaders Republicans joined Democrats in supporting him.

The measure passed 18-15, receiving the bare minimum to pass the House with just two weeks remaining in the legislative session.

Low-income residents who receive assistance from the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, known informally as food stamps, generally must obtain food from retail outlets, such as grocery stores and convenience stores. But the federal government allows states to adopt policies allowing elderly, disabled and homeless residents to buy food from restaurants that agree to sell meals at lower prices.

According to the US Department of Agriculture, six states currently allow the use of food stamps in restaurants in at least some locations – Arizona, California, Maryland, Michigan, Rhode Island and Virginia. Illinois is expected to add the restaurant option this spring.

Missouri legislation is expected to allow more than 182,000 households with elderly, disabled or homeless members to use their food stamps at restaurants, according to an analysis by the Office of Legislative Research.

Some Republicans, particularly those in the conservative caucus, have claimed their party leaders are violating a grassroots GOP campaign pledge by backing the legislation and encouraging low-income residents to squander their benefits.

“It’s the expansion of the welfare state,” said Republican Senator Rick Brattin, a candidate for Congress this year.

“This program is already out of control, prone to fraud, and encouraging people to eat unhealthily,” added Sen. Bob Onder, another member of the conservative Republican caucus.

But other Republicans pushed back on those claims, noting that the bill does not increase the overall cost of the program but instead provides hot meal options for those in need. Disabled or elderly people may not be able to cook, and homeless people don’t have refrigerators to store food or kitchens to prepare it, Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer said.

“There’s not even an iota of benefit expansion,” said Luetkemeyer, the Republican whip responsible for rallying votes.

The bill passed with the support of all 10 Democrats and eight Republicans, including Senate Pro Tem Chairman Dave Schatz, Majority Leader Caleb Rowden, Deputy Majority Leader Bill White and Luetkemeyer. He was opposed by 15 Republicans.