It’s tough stretching a tight budget, especially for low-income families. Many turn to state assistance programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) for help with food and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which offers monthly cash assistance. Beneficiaries try to make their assistance payments stretch as far as possible—part of this strategy is knowing where they can use their EBT card. Restaurant owners in touch with this reality in their community might wonder, “Grocery stores, farmers markets, and other establishments accept EBT. What about my store? How can I accept EBT at my restaurant?”
First, let’s look at what EBT is and how it works.
EBT is the acronym for electronic benefits transfer. Assistance programs use EBT cards to disburse SNAP and TANF payments to eligible individuals and families. SNAP disbursements, or food stamps, used to be paper food stamps stapled together in booklets and mailed to recipients. TANF payments were disbursed as checks. These programs have come a long way since their inception and, with the invention of new technologies, switched to electronic benefits transfer. Benefit recipients no longer have to stand in a grocery line, dreading their turn to pay or wait for a check and drive to their bank to cash it, and that’s if the recipient even had a bank account. Instead, the assistance payments are loaded onto an EBT card that works like any traditional credit or debit card.
Various types of businesses accept EBT and SNAP payments. Companies that want to receive these payments must first register with the US Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Food and Nutrition Services program and apply to become an EBT and SNAP retailers. The application process is relatively straightforward.
Almost any retail establishment can qualify to accept TANF, or cash benefit, payments from EBT cards. However, businesses that want to accept SNAP EBT benefit payments have much stricter criteria.
For instance, stores must sell specific types of food, or more than 50% of revenue must come from the sale of food. Eligible food is anything that’s expected to be prepared at home and consumed by people. Even seeds or food-bearing plants are allowed.
Items excluded from eligibility include any non-food items, as well as:
- Hot foods
- Foods meant to be consumed immediately in-store
- Pet food
- Soap and other hygienic products
- Cleaning supplies
This is not an exhaustive list of items that cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits.
But, if hot foods—or any already prepared foods—cannot be purchased with SNAP benefits, restaurant owners might wonder, “How can I accept EBT at my restaurant?”
Well, the answer is—it depends.
In some states and counties, the homeless, the aged, and people with disabilities receiving SNAP and EBT benefits can buy low-priced meals in restaurants. For instance, in some remote locations of Alaska, families have minimal access to grocery stores and restaurants and rely instead on hunting and other activities to survive. In places like this, recipients can use their SNAP benefits to purchase items that assist the family in their hunting endeavors, such as:
- Fishing nets
- Fishing hooks
- Bow & arrow
The business must participate in their state’s Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) if a restaurant wants to offer SNAP acceptance to patrons.
What is the RMP?
The RMP is an option that allows certain restaurants to offer SNAP acceptance to customers. It’s not available in all states, though. Only a handful of states currently provide participation in the RMP:
- Rhode Island (Only in Providence County and Washington County)
Every SNAP retailer must follow strict rules, such as not allowing non-food purchases with SNAP benefits or alcohol and tobacco purchases with TANF funds on an EBT card. When a restaurant joins the RMP, additional rules must be followed regarding who can use SNAP benefits for meals in their establishment—which could be tricky to navigate. Thankfully, checking EBT cards isn’t the responsibility of the restaurant owner. Clients’ EBT cards are specially programmed for the RMP—if the EBT cardholder isn’t approved to participate, their card will get declined.
Recipients entitled to use Restaurant Meals Program benefits are typically homeless, have no way to cook meals, or have no place to store and prepare food. Additionally, every member of a household/family unit must meet at least one of the following criteria:
- Live in a state that offers the RMP
- Be at least 60 years old
- Permanently disabled
- Married to a SNAP beneficiary that’s already qualified
How Can a Restaurant Sign Up for the Restaurant Meals Program?
If a restaurant owner wants to offer SNAP acceptance, the business must be:
- Within a state that provides the RMP
- Approved the RMP for their condition and sign an agreement with the FNS
- Already approved for a SNAP permit with an FNS number
Every state has requirements for RMP approval and may have limitations on the number or types of restaurants allowed to participate. If your restaurant is in a form that participates and you already have a SNAP retailer permit, apply to participate in the RMP. Note: using the RMP is not an online process. You must print, sign, and mail your application to:
Retailers Service Center
PO Box 7228
Falls Church, VA 22040
If you want to learn how to accept EBT at my restaurant, apply for this privilege using the information outlined here.
Do I Need New Equipment to Accept SNAP At My Restaurant?
Your restaurant needs a point-of-sale (POS) programmed for EBT card acceptance. Your current equipment might be compatible if you already process traditional credit and debit cards. If not, and you want or need to switch merchant service accounts, Zenti offers EBT POS equipment. Contact us to learn more about accepting EBT and SNAP benefits at your restaurant or grocery store with an EBT merchant services account.