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Bill that would let some SNAP users buy prepared food has bipartisan support


A bill that would allow some South Dakotans to use their food-assistance benefits to buy prepared meals narrowly passed a Senate committee with bipartisan support.

"The elderly with arthritis too severe to hold a knife, the disabled with limitations on how much they can lift, and the homeless who lack homes with full working kitchens — we ignore the fact that there are populations that don't have the means to prepare or store food," testified bill sponsor Jessica Castleberry, R-Rapid City. "Literally the poorest and most disabled among us are completely left out of our nationwide hunger assistance program."

Castleberry told SDPB these are real-life examples of people who would benefit from her bill. She said the South Dakota woman with arthritis depends on Meals on Wheels while the homeless person is a mother who escaped an abusive partner. She said the disabled man is a wheelchair user who lives out of state.

The federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program assists low-income people by providing monthly financial aid that can be used to purchase food at participating grocery stores, convenience stores and farmers markets.

But SNAP policy says it can only be used to purchase cold food and prepared items. It can't be used for hot products like grilled sandwiches, rotisserie chicken or hot soup.

SNAP does allow states to opt in to the Restaurant Meals Program, and that's what the pending legislation proposes. It lets disabled, homeless and recipients over the age of 60 use their benefits to receive discounted prepared food and meals. Grocery and convenience stores, restaurants, delis and fast food chains can chose to participate in the program.

Castleberry — described by Gov. Kristi Noem in her State of the State address as formerly poor and a single mother of three — is the prime sponsor of Senate Bill 148. The bill's cosponsors are an even mix of Democrats and Republicans.

The Senate Health and Human Services Committee endorsed the bill on Monday. Three Republicans and one Democrat voted in favor of the bill. Three Republicans voted against it. It now moves to the Senate floor.

Castleberry said the Restaurant Meals Program has been successful in liberal and conservatives states. She said South Dakota restaurant owners, nonprofit leaders and mayors told her the program can benefit SNAP recipients and local businesses.

The Department of Social Services — which administers SNAP — spoke out against the bill. So did the South Dakota Retailers Association and some committee members.

"Because so few states have implemented the restaurant meals program, there's little known about the impact or outcomes for SNAP recipients and retailers or what those challenges may pose for states," testified Carrie Johnson with DSS.

Opponents said the program will be burdensome to launch and administer since it requires coordination between the state, federal government and business that want to opt-in. They noted the bill does not provide any funding to help with these issues.

Johnson and the Retailers Association also gave examples of states that have left the program and ones that are struggling to launch it.

Castleberry said the state shouldn't be afraid of a challenge.

"Simply saying that it's not convenient for their department does not take away the need of the people," she said.

Nearly 33,700 South Dakota households received an average $361 in SNAP benefits in December, according to data from the Department of Social Services.

There were nearly 71,000 individual recipients, with a nearly even split between children and adults.

Castleberry said about 17,000 SNAP recipients are disabled, over the age of 60 or both. She said about 1,200 are homeless.

On Wednesday, the Senate Taxation committee will debate another SNAP-related bill. SB 166 would phase out the 4.5% tax on SNAP purchases.

South Dakota is one of 13 states that includes groceries in its sales tax and one of three states that taxes groceries at the same rate as all other sales, according to 2021 data from the Tax Policy Center.

South Dakota is one of 13 states to tax groceries but only one of three to do so at the full sales tax rate.
Tax Policy Center
South Dakota is one of 13 states to tax groceries but only one of three to do so at the full sales tax rate.

A third bill, House Bill 1247, would lower the state sales-tax rate for all purchases, including SNAP purchases, from 4.5% to 4%.

Arielle Zionts, rural health care correspondent, is based in South Dakota. She primarily covers South Dakota and its neighboring states and tribal nations. Arielle previously worked at South Dakota Public Broadcasting, where she reported on business and economic development.
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