Can You Buy Fast-Food with EBT in California?

by Nick
Fast-Food with EBT

In the state of California, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), known as CalFresh, helps low-income individuals and families access nutritious food. The program provides Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards, which function like debit cards, to eligible recipients. While these benefits are primarily used to purchase groceries, there is a growing interest in whether they can be used to buy fast food. This article delves into the rules and regulations surrounding the use of EBT for fast food purchases in California, exploring the nuances of the program and its implications for beneficiaries.

What Is EBT And CalFresh?

Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) is a system that allows state welfare departments to issue benefits via a magnetically encoded payment card. CalFresh, California’s version of the federal SNAP program, issues EBT cards to qualifying low-income residents. These cards can be used to buy food at authorized retail food stores and farmers’ markets.


However, the use of EBT cards is subject to certain restrictions. Typically, EBT cards cannot be used to purchase hot prepared foods or foods meant for immediate consumption. This rule is in place to ensure that SNAP benefits are spent on nutritious, staple foods rather than on less healthy options.


The Restaurant Meals Program (RMP)

What is the Restaurant Meals Program?

California has a unique provision known as the Restaurant Meals Program (RMP). This program allows eligible EBT cardholders to purchase hot, prepared meals from participating restaurants. The RMP is designed to serve homeless, elderly, and disabled individuals who may not have the means to store or cook their food. Through this program, these individuals can access prepared meals that they might otherwise be unable to obtain.


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Eligibility for the RMP

To be eligible for the RMP, EBT recipients must meet specific criteria. They must be:

Homeless: Individuals who lack a fixed and regular nighttime residence or whose primary nighttime residence is a shelter, temporary accommodation, or place not meant for sleeping.

Elderly: Individuals who are 60 years of age or older.

Disabled: Individuals who receive disability benefits from the federal or state government.

Households that include a member who meets one of these criteria can use their EBT card to buy meals at participating restaurants.

Participating Restaurants

Which Fast Food Chains Accept EBT?

Several fast food chains participate in the RMP, allowing eligible recipients to use their EBT cards for purchases. Some of the well-known chains include:

These restaurants offer a range of options, from sandwiches and salads to pizzas and burgers. The participation of these chains provides a measure of convenience and variety for those who might otherwise struggle to access hot meals.

How to Use EBT at Fast Food Restaurants

Steps to Use Your EBT Card

Check Eligibility: Ensure you are eligible for the RMP. This can be done by contacting your local CalFresh office or checking your eligibility status online.

Locate Participating Restaurants: Use resources like the California Department of Social Services website to find participating restaurants in your area.

Present Your EBT Card: When ordering, inform the cashier that you will be paying with an EBT card. Swipe your card as you would with any debit or credit card, and enter your PIN.

Benefits of The RMP

Addressing Food Insecurity

The RMP plays a crucial role in addressing food insecurity among vulnerable populations. By allowing eligible recipients to use their EBT cards at fast food restaurants, the program ensures that even those without access to cooking facilities can obtain nutritious, prepared meals. This is particularly important for homeless individuals, who may have limited options for storing and preparing food.

Supporting Nutritional Needs

While fast food is often criticized for being unhealthy, many participating restaurants offer healthier menu options. For instance, Subway provides a variety of fresh vegetables and lean proteins, while other chains have started to include salads, grilled items, and lower-calorie choices on their menus. The RMP thus supports the nutritional needs of eligible recipients by offering a range of meal options.

Providing Dignity and Choice

The ability to choose where and what to eat is a fundamental aspect of human dignity. The RMP gives eligible EBT recipients the autonomy to select meals that meet their preferences and dietary needs. This choice is empowering and helps to normalize the experience of receiving food assistance.

Challenges And Criticisms

Limited Participation

Despite its benefits, the RMP has faced criticism for its limited reach. Not all counties in California participate in the program, which restricts access for many eligible recipients. Additionally, not all fast fooncerns

Another major criticism of the RMP is the potential health impact of fast food consumption. Critics argue that promoting the use of EBT cards at fast food restaurants could exacerbate health issues such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease.

While many restaurants have made strides in offering healthier options, the majority of fast food items are still high in calories, fat, and sodium.

Stigma and Misunderstanding

There is also a social stigma associated with using EBT cards, particularly at fast food restaurants. Some individuals may feel embarrassed or ashamed to use their benefits in a public setting. Moreover, there is often misunderstanding and judgment from others who may not be aware of the RMP and its purpose. This stigma can discourage eligible recipients from utilizing the program.

Looking Forward: Expanding And Improving The RMP

Potential for Expansion

One way to address the challenges facing the RMP is to expand the program to more counties and increase the number of participating restaurants. This would improve access for eligible recipients and provide a wider range of dining options.

Advocates are working to raise awareness and support for the program, with the hope of seeing it adopted more broadly across the state.

Promoting Healthier Options

Encouraging participating restaurants to offer and promote healthier menu options is another important step. By highlighting lower-calorie, nutrient-rich choices, the RMP can help mitigate some of the health concerns associated with fast food consumption. Educational initiatives could also be implemented to inform recipients about making healthier food choices.

Reducing Stigma

Efforts to reduce the stigma associated with using EBT cards are essential for the success of the RMP. Public awareness campaigns can help educate the broader community about the program and its benefits, fostering a more supportive and understanding environment. Additionally, ensuring that EBT transactions are discreet and seamless can help protect the dignity of recipients.


The Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) in California represents a significant step forward in addressing food insecurity among vulnerable populations. By allowing eligible EBT recipients to purchase hot, prepared meals at participating fast food restaurants, the program provides much-needed access to nutritious food. Despite challenges such as limited participation, health concerns, and social stigma, the RMP offers valuable benefits, including addressing food insecurity, supporting nutritional needs, and providing dignity and choice.

Looking ahead, expanding the program, promoting healthier options, and reducing stigma are key areas for improvement.

With continued advocacy and support, the RMP has the potential to make a meaningful difference in the lives of those who rely on it, ensuring that everyone has access to the food they need to thrive.


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