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Approved restaurants could soon be able to accept SNAP benefits from patrons in New York state.

The state Assembly has approved legislation sponsored by Assemblywoman Karines Reyes, D-Bronx, to mandate that New York state take part in the federal Restaurant Meals Program, which allows homeless, elderly and disabled SNAP recipients to use their benefits for prepared or hot food from participating restaurants, delis' and grocery stores at reduced prices.

Reyes said joining the federal program makes sure those in the most need in the state can use their benefits and get access to food. The legislation passed the Assembly in 2020 but was not approved in the Senate. This year, it will be sent to Gov. Andrew Cuomo for his signature after passing both houses of the state Legislature.

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Republicans noted the program doesn't steer SNAP recipients toward healthy food options, with Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-Watertown, leading the charge against SNAP benefits being used for fast food restaurants.

"I don't know if he's ever had to feed a family on a budget, but most families or seniors receive very little money in SNAP benefits and have to make that benefit stretch, and that usually means buying the cheapest, most high-calorie food item that they can afford based on those benefits," Reyes said. "Often times that means buying frozen foods or canned foods that have upwards of 500 milligrams of sodium each. I think it's important, particularly now when our small businesses have been suffering and our restaurants have been suffering, to provide them with another source of revenue so our folks could use their SNAP benefits to buy some hot, prepared healthy options at our local delis and our local restaurants."

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Assemblyman Andrew Goodell, R-Jamestown, said the legislation, as written, may not allow many local restaurants to participate. In Michigan, participating in the Restaurant Meals Program entails signing a seven-page Restaurant Meal Program Memorandum of Understanding with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"I have the great pleasure of living with a vegetarian," Goodell said. "I eat much of what she cooks — all of which, I might add, is both better tasting and more nutritious than what I cook. But this bill doesn't require that anyone eat healthy food. And as we all know obesity is a large and growing problem. So we need to be sensitive to that. I appreciate the fact that for some restaurants this will give them an additional source of income. Only those private establishments that actually have a contract with the state of New York can participate in programs. So as a fact of the matter that is going to eliminate almost all local restaurants who are not going to go through the process of contracting with the OTDA so that they can provide restaurant food to SNAP benefit recipients. I hope in the future that we focus on a more healthy initiative to benefit all of the residents of New York state."

While Goodell and Republicans see the program being used mostly by fast food restaurants, Reyes said she expects the program to be used by delis and grocery stores that also offer prepared meals. Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo and Assembly majority leader, likened starting the Restaurant Meals Program to the state's efforts to get restaurants and stores to disclose health information about the foods they sold and served.

"It must have been probably 10 years ago when some of us were asking restaurants to list what the calorie content was on their meals," Peoples-Stokes said. "We were asking food manufacturers to list what the calorie content was of what they were selling us in the stores. There was a lot of push back on that. We finally got to it. And because we did get to that some people are learning to eat healthier. Of course there are some people who really just don't care. But at the end of the day everybody cares about having something to eat.

The Assembly vote was 112-35 while the Senate vote was 56-7.

This article originally ran on auburnpub.com.

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