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Illinois SNAP program allows food stamps at restaurants

Updated : November 28th, 2022

Restaurant Food

The state of Illinois is participating in the federally funded Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program’s Restaurant Meals Program. Launched in DeWitt, Franklin, and Cook counties during the spring of 2022, the program allows some SNAP participants – including the homeless, elderly and disabled – to use their SNAP benefits for hot, prepared food from participating restaurants.

This is a key break from traditional program requirements, which historically have limited use of SNAP benefits for cold food items or ingredients only. Under the extended program, SNAP benefits may be used to purchase eat-in or carry-out prepared food from participating restaurants – benefits may not be used, however, to purchase prepared food for delivery.

According to the Illinois Department of Human Services, more than 427,000 current food stamp recipients across the state can benefit from the program extension.

The Restaurant Meals Program exists as an optional state extension of the SNAP program – designed to assist those who may either be unable to prepare food for themselves or who may not have adequate housing for food preparation and storage. And though food prices at restaurants may run higher than costs for raw ingredients, the Restaurant Meals Program can go a long way toward fighting hunger and food insecurity among some of the most vulnerable Illinois residents.

To qualify for the program, current SNAP recipients must be any of the following:

  • A person 60 years of age or older
  • A current recipient of disability or blindness benefits or receiving disability retirement benefits from a governmental agency as a result of a permanent disability
  • A person who is homeless
  • Spouse of a SNAP benefits recipient who is eligible to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program

Qualifying program participants do not need to submit an additional application to be approved for the program – their existing Illinois Link EBT cards will automatically work to purchase prepared food from participating restaurants. Those who aren’t sure about their benefits eligibility may call the IDHS Customer Helpline at 1-800-843-6154 for more information specific to their situation. Otherwise, eligible participants will receive official notification from IDHS indicating whether they are eligible to participate. They will be able to use their Illinois Link EBT card at participating restaurants, just like they would at a grocery store. There is no per-meal or per-item limit when using the Illinois Link EBT card at a restaurant.

Illinois joins six other states in the pilot project, designed to collect data about how this expanded acceptance of SNAP benefits provides nourishing, prepared foods for some of the federal program’s most vulnerable participants, while also supporting local community restaurants across the United States. While the program remains in early stages and data are not complete, some participating restaurants report up to 1,000 customers per week using their credits. To date, six restaurants in the Chicago area have opted to participate in the program. They are BJ’s Market & Bakery, Doughboy’s Chicago, Firehouse Bakery & Grill, Ocean Wave Soul & Seafood, JJ Fish and Chicken, and S2 Express Grill.

Rep. Sonya Harper (IL-6th District) filed the original bill to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program, and Gov. J.B. Pritzker later signed the program extension into law. For the pilot project, participating restaurants must be located in Dewitt, Franklin, or Cook County. The state of Illinois is actively encouraging additional restaurants in these counties to apply for program participation.

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