The SNAP Hot Foods Ban Is Inequitable and Should Be Removed

Note: This blog was updated on May 30, 2023, to reflect the introduction of the Hot Foods Act.

By Ashley Burnside 

The Farm Bill reauthorization provides an opportunity to improve the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) program to make it more equitable and anti-racist. One provision Congress should address in the upcoming legislation is SNAP’s hot foods ban. With very limited exceptions, SNAP recipients are not allowed to use their benefits to purchase prepared or hot meals. This policy is paternalistic, inconvenient, and ableist.  

Cooking and eating are essential for daily living. These tasks can also take a lot of time, energy, and stress—especially if you are disabled. Disabled people are at least twice as likely to face food insecurity. And one in five SNAP households include a non-elderly disabled adult. Removing the hot meals ban in SNAP would help ensure that disabled people who may have difficulty preparing food due to their health condition can nourish themselves and their families. 

I’ll talk about my own disability to provide an example of how cooking can be more difficult for someone who has a disability, and how ending the hot meals ban could help. I have mild cerebral palsy, a physical disability that causes spasticity in my muscles and very mild muscle paralysis on the right side of my body. Cerebral palsy looks different for each person who has it, and the same goes for all disabilities. For me, I experience pain when I stand for long periods of time, like when I am cooking, for example. 

A common way to talk about expending energy in the disability/chronic illness community is the “spoon theory.” This theory proposes that every daily activity that uses physical and mental energy is the equivalent of a spoon, and a disabled person may only have so many ‘spoons’ per day they can use before they are depleted of their energy and in pain.  

Tasks that able-bodied people take for granted, like cooking, can take up many spoons of energy for a disabled person. For me, cooking a meal can result in pain and fatigue, and it can use a few of my spoons, depending on the day. That leaves me with fewer spoons for the other necessities of daily life.  

Let’s consider if I was making a chicken salad. Cutting the vegetables for the base of the salad requires precise maneuvering of a sharp knife, which is hard for me. And it can easily lead to a finger injury if I’m not careful. Cooking chicken requires standing for an extended period, bending to take the meat in and out of the oven to roast it, and then washing pans at the sink. It gets exhausting, and by the end, my legs are inflamed, and I am tired—and that is just for one meal.  

Thankfully, workarounds can make cooking a bit easier for disabled folks like me, and it comes down to what groceries we buy. For example, I could buy a pre-cooked rotisserie chicken, which is available at many grocery stores and is sometimes cheaper than a raw chicken. This would prevent me from having to navigate bending and carrying heavy dishes in and out of the oven, using time and energy to cook the raw meat, and standing at the sink to then wash the heavy pots and pans.  

But if I were using SNAP benefits to buy my groceries, I wouldn’t be able to buy a prepared chicken because of the hot foods ban. This means that I’d have to use more personal energy to cook, because I wouldn’t be allowed to purchase prepared meals. 

The hot foods ban limits the options of SNAP recipients, requiring people to spend more time and energy cooking meals they could otherwise purchase already prepared were it not for the ban. This is also harmful because SNAP recipients know what food is right for them and their families, and the program should provide autonomy so recipients can decide what groceries they want to purchase. This policy also harms single parents, who might be short on time to prepare a meal for their kids after working a full day. And the hot foods ban may negatively affect older people, who also may face pain and fatigue when cooking; unhoused people, who may not have reliable access to a stove; and anyone else who doesn’t have time for cooking.  

In the upcoming Farm Bill reauthorization, Congress should remove the hot foods ban in the SNAP program so more people can easily access various food options. Congress should also pass the Hot Foods Act, which would allow SNAP recipients to use their benefits to purchase hot foods. This will benefit disabled people and numerous other populations. And this would promote equity in the SNAP program and access to food.  

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