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JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — Food stamps could soon be used at some Missouri restaurants to purchase hot meals, but they would only be available for certain recipients.

The Senate barely passed legislation Thursday that would establish the “Restaurant Meals Program.” It would allow elderly, disabled, or homeless Missourians on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP_ to buy a hot meal at restaurants that contract with the state’s Department of Social Services (DSS).

“As I weigh into the decision of how I’ll vote for this particular issue, I think about the individuals that could benefit from this,” Senate President Dave Schatz (R-Sullivan) said on the Senate floor Thursday.

Schatz was one of the eight Republicans who joined all 10 Democrats in voting for Senate Bill 798 which is sponsored by Florissant Democrat Sen. Angela Mosley. Sen. Bill White (R-Joplin) was also one of the eight Republicans.

“Keep in mind who really benefits and what they need,” White said. “A lot of these people cannot safely cook food or don’t have the ability to store the food.”

It’s a topic that fractured Senate Republicans, some arguing this could lead to unhealthy diets.

“It’s going to expand a welfare program that’s already bloated and very prone to fraud,” Sen. Bob Onder, R-Lake St. Louis, said. “I think there ought to be a work requirement on this and there is not.”

Onder called Schatz, a U.S. Senate candidate out on the Senate floor saying this isn’t a piece of legislation he should have brought up or voted for when campaigning for higher office.

“I assume that leadership has decided this is a bill they really want,” Onder said. “Gosh, I don’t know if I were running in a Republican primary for the U.S. whether I’d want it.”

Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer (R-Parkville) stood up and spoke on the Senate floor in favor of the legislation. Whether members vote for or against this bill because of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there’s no policing of removing junk food from SNAP.

“Like it or not, 100% of someone’s SNAP benefits can be spent on junk food,” Luetkemeyer said. “You’re focusing on vulnerable populations that for life reasons don’t have the ability to readily go to the grocery store and to cook for themselves.”

Conservative Caucus member Sen. Rick Brattin, R-Harrisonville, said by creating this program, the state expands the food stamps program.

“It will only continue to keep people trapped in situations,” Brattin said. “The more you make it lucrative and things of that nature, the money they remained trapped in these situations.”

The other side of the aisle said lawmakers should have said to judge what someone eats/

“Who are we to determine what somebody should eat?” Sen. Barbara Washington (D-Kansas City) said Thursday. “Although I want to clarify that Mcdonald’s is not a qualifier at this point and I doubt if they’re going to be.”

It’s estimated that around 183,000 households will be eligible for the program. According to the research for the legislation, as of October 2021, there were 21,077 homeless households and 161,604 elderly and disabled.

“Not a single penny is actually spent on increased benefits,” Luetkemeyer said. “When we hear about an expansion of the welfare state, the reality of it is there isn’t even an iota of expansion of benefits that are going to be going to this system.”

If the House approves the bill and the governor signs it, it’s expected to cost $27,000 in the first year to implement it because of computer system upgrades. After that, it’s estimated to cost $500 a month for maintenance.

“I believe that maybe those individuals that need this program or need this opportunity to be able to get a hot meal; I’ve never had to walk in their shoes,” Schatz said. “Do I think we need to make improvements to the SNAP program, absolutely but I also think about the people that benefit from this.”

The House has less than two weeks to vote on the legislation before the session ends on May 13.