Should You Be Able to Purchase Religious Foods with Food Stamps?

As it turns out, stores that accept food stamps can be disqualified from participating in the food stamp program if they violate certain regulations, such as accepting food stamps as payment for ineligible goods like cigarettes. If this disqualification would cause “hardship” to the food stamp customers, however, store owners might be charged a fine rather than be disqualified.

In a recently-filed lawsuit, Mehrab #1 Corp. v. United States, a Chicago grocer who sold Zabiha-Halal meats was disqualified from the food stamp program for accepting food stamps for ineligible goods.  The store challenged this decision on the basis that “it is the oldest and most trusted Indian and Pakistani Grocery Store providing Authentic Zabiha-Halal Meat and the only store in the Greater Chicago Land Area who can prove to sell only Zabiha-Halal Meat, and also that Mehrab’s prices are on average … 10-15% cheaper than the competition.”  In other words, the hardship to Mehrab’s customers was the inability to find halal meat at an equivalent price in the general vicinity of the disqualified store.

The court in Mehrab found that the inability to find these foods might constitute a sufficient hardship, such that the case must go to trial and a money penalty may be imposed on the store rather than a disqualification.  Interestingly, the court held that the case must go to trial only to determine whether any “retailer in Mehrab’s vicinity offers an equivalent variety of Zabiha-Halal items at comparable prices.”  This holding necessarily implies that if there are no such retailers, Mehrab’s customers will experience a hardship sufficient to charge Mehrab a fine rather than disqualify it.

So is this a legitimate interpretation of the Food Stamp Act, or is the court catering to the religious?  The statute states that a money penalty is an option if “the firm’s disqualification would cause hardship to food stamp households because there is no other authorized retail food store in the area selling as large a variety of staple food items at comparable prices.”  The court’s decision in Mehrab #1 means that halal foods, kosher foods, etc. can be considered “staple food items.”

Legally, that is probably the correct interpretation.  If this food stamp policy prevented religious people from abiding by their dietary restrictions, then it would likely run up against the Free Exercise Clause, in that the government would be imposing a burden on religious people that was not similarly imposed on those without religious dietary requirements.

I wonder, though, if specialty religious foods are more expensive than “regular” foods. If so, it seems a shame that families who participate in the food stamp program would use their limited resources to pay extra for food that has been blessed, when they could just opt for the sinful food and get more of it.

About katherine

Born in Texas, Katherine is now a lawyer in the northwestern United States.

  • Alantas

    I don’t see any reason to object to using food stamps to buy food that’s gotten some religion’s arbitrary thumbs-up. Kosher food is still food, after all.

    • Pseudonym

      Suppose that there were a potential conflict between the food stamp program and other types of food preference, such as veganism. Say, there was some essential nutrient which vegans could only get from an obscure plant, which only one store in the area sells.

      Should the program accommodate that? We’ll assume that the person isn’t vegan for medical reasons, such as genuine intolerances.

      I don’t have a point in asking this question, by the way. I’m just musing aloud.

      On the original topic, I’d like to point out that if the store didn’t abuse the food stamps system, there would never have been an issue. If the people in the area can’t get their religiously-blessed food, it’s their fault, not the law’s fault.

  • Trace

    Fine by me.

  • http://profiles.google.com/lckayaker Dennis K. Biby

    “it seems a shame that families who participate in the food stamp program would use their limited resources to pay extra for food that has been blessed, when they could just opt for the sinful food and get more of it.”

    I agree, however, a visit to any convenience store finds food stamp folks paying (using their EBT card) for chips, convenience food, etc.

    As an atheist, this isn’t a religion issue so much as it is a selection of poor choices by the uneducated (often the indoctrinated).

    • Anonymous

      While this is a popular response, repeated studies have shown that poor people tend to make the cheapest choices possible in terms of calories per dollar. This is after you factor in things like transportation and fuel. The middle class actually tends to be the least well-off nutritionally, with the poor close behind with the reason being that the middle class values their time more and chooses foods that are the most efficient time-wise (including eating out more).

      In any event, you’re already at the convenience store and everybody’s buying junk food there. Out of that sample size, wouldn’t almost all of the food stamp people there will be buying junk food?

      I’m currently barely self-employed, and I’m currently living on 1/4th of my former income. I’ve found myself using a lot more time preparing foods from a more raw state (or breaking down foods that are in a bulk state to prolong shelf-life) which eats into the time I’m spending trying to increase my income. Oddly enough, being poor and sometimes not having chunks of money to buy optimized quantities makes it more expensive to be poor. There’s just all sorts of conundrums besides the “poor choices” thing.

      • http://profiles.google.com/lckayaker Dennis K. Biby

        “… repeated studies have shown that poor people tend to make the cheapest choices possible in terms of calories per dollar.”

        Really?  Can you cite the studies?

        “… using a lot more time preparing foods from a more raw state…”  Good for you.  I do the same.  Yet, I observe the down-n-out (perhaps not politically correct) making poor choices at the convenience store.

        No, I don’t have a solution.  Just an observation.  

        • Anonymous

          Ah, science forgive me, that’s what I get for trusting science reporting over original research. You are more likely to be fat if you’re poor…the poor eat less fast food, but drink more soda, etc because of lack of access to proper grocery stores according to the standard government studies. This study links to a lot of other studies: http://www.yaleruddcenter.org/resources/upload/docs/what/reports/RuddReportAccesstoHealthyFoods2008.pdf

          While there are food stamps, there are no “car stamps” and places where obesity and food stamp usage are highest (my next-door neighbor, Mississippi) also seem to have less public transportation.

    • http://twitter.com/butterflyfish_ Heidi McClure

      Maybe they buy convenience food because they don’t have a microwave, and their stove is broken.

      Also, I have never seen anyone buying “convenience food” with their EBT card when I have been in a convenience store, so your anecdote is a bit of an exaggeration.

  • beth

    It’s a personal issue with that person… if they get the same amount of money as anyone else, but choose to spend in a way that gives them less food for the same amount, it’s they’re choice.  It does not effect me either way.  It’s still food.

  • http://www.spellwight.com spellwight

    Generally people on food stamps have enough problems that I’m not going to begrudge them their choices in what to spend them on. Many people choose the better juices or better cuts of meat when on FS than they could normally afford to buy. When you’re broke all the time you deserve that special treat when you can.

    • Brett Hansen

      I agree completely!  You don’t generally get on food stamps if you have a lot of luxuries in your life, and the little things can make a big psychological difference.

  • Anonymous

    I’d say this would be fine. I think it could be reasonably expanded to fit some community’s moral or ethical decisions. If this would put a budget vegan store out of business and it would cause undue hardship to be limited by the vegan selection in other stores, I would have no problem with it.

  • Timothy Kersting

    “Should You Be Able to Purchase Religious Foods with Food Stamps?” doesn’t seem to be the issue specif ally in the court case. The document doesn’t state what specific ineligible items were purchased with Foostamp cards and even says that cash was given out. I couldn’t see how specific meat items are marked as ineligible in Illinois. People can purchase lobster via EBT cards if they so desire, just not non-food items.

    Personally, I’d say revoke their license. Foodstamps are supposed to be supplemental.  People can still buy their other groceries somewhere else and come to that market just for meat. The threat of loss of business is much more effective punishment than a simple fine.

  • http://twitter.com/0xabad1dea Melissa E

    While I object to the way that halal meat in-particular is prepared, it is legal, and of course not all halal/kosher things have anything to do with meat – I see no reason to deny food stamp coverage to something just because it avoids certain ingredients, if it’s still food. Lots of things on the market are *incidentally* halal/kosher through no particular effort on their part, so why should anyone care? 

    • Becky Shattuck

      I’m glad someone decided to read what the case was actually about!  Thanks for sharing that with us.  So, if I understood you correctly, the store allowed people to use the checks for items that were not allowed, and their license was revoked.  Other people are upset because that was the only place they could get their kosher meats.  

      That changes things for me.  I think the store should have their license revoked, if that’s what the punishment typically is for violating the laws regarding food stamps.  Yes, it sucks for the other patrons, but that shouldn’t change policies.  For them, it should mean they either have to take their business elsewhere or buy those foods with their own money. 

  • jamssx

    I think there is a bigger question over how much we should bow to arbitrary food requirements. In this case it food stamps and money, but there are other considerations when it comes to religious food. Currently there is a fight going on in the UK and the rest of Europe over the method of slaughter of kosher/halal animals. Namely that they are not stunned as prior to slaughter. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-14779271 So exactly where do you draw the line….?

  • http://twitter.com/sourblaze InfidelAvenger

    No one cares about Jews using them to buy kosher…

    As someone who used to work in convenience stores, I personally had a far bigger issue with people using them to try to buy cigarettes and booze, or people using them to buy junk food, But an honest Muslim buying halal? I could not care less — the meat is being used to feed his family, correct? I say we have bigger fish to fry…

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_7PYGZTF6VRW2KIYXT5DDGNU7UA kikisdragon

    first of all i dont understand why meat would not qualify to be purchased with food stamps. Why does the brand or purpose matter? its meat. Secondly, Halal does not mean ‘blessed’  or ‘approved’ by a muslim imam, halal has to do with how the animal was raised and slaughtered. And halal meat is much healthier for you than most meat found in our stores today which has been made from animals injected with chemicals and hormones and steroids and tortured their entire lives only to be slaughtered for food. I don’t see how halal foods compare in any way to booze and cigarettes. The government needs to be educated as well as many of the readers of this blog. I’ve always agreed with most of the articles on here, but this one really irritates the hell out of me.

    • Erik Cameron

      add a citation, people will probably agree with you

    • https://www.facebook.com/GentleGiantDK GentleGiant

      Where are you getting those “facts” from? How do verses from the Quaran pertain to the way animals are raised and treated today?

      Nowhere does it specify that halal meat must be free-range, non-vaccinated animals.Also, you ask how halal foods compare to alcohol (booze)? You obviously don’t know what halal means.

    • Guest

      Halal is the slaughtering and not contaminating with certain animals or blood or pieces of those animals. It has nothing to do with chemicals or hormones. can you clarify?

  • Rich Wilson

    I don’t get the headline.  It’s implying that the store owner is in trouble for selling meat for foodstamps, but is that the case?  What DID he sell that was ineligible?  It sounds to me like he sold cigarettes for foodstamps, and is claiming that since he’s the only one who sells magic meat in the area, that it would be a hardship for his customers if he were kicked off the program.  In which case, the headline is out of line.

  • GodVlogger (on YouTube)

    As long as we are allowed to use our food stamps to buy spaghetti and a pair of meat balls, then I can comply with my god’s wishes. May I be touched by the Flying Spaghetti Monster’s noodley appendage. rAmen.

    • Magicathiest

      You make a wonderful point. AND made me laugh too. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

    I don’t know what the proper interpretation of the statute ought to be as a Constitutional matter, but in general, I’m fine with this outcome policy wise.

    Food stamps and other forms of governmental support affect not only adults, who might be blamed for having stupid beliefs that harm them, but also their children who are comparatively blameless.  I don’t believe that poor decisions on behalf of parents should deprive children of the opportunity to thrive, or in this case, the opportunity to get basic nutrition.

    So while I may judge people who follow religions that hurt them, I wouldn’t take it out on them in this fashion.

  • Becky Shattuck

    I’m kind of putting myself out there by writing this comment.  My family and I are on some assistance.  We’re not on food stamps, but I do get food through WIC (Women, Infants, Children).  I’m also a vegetarian.  If it matters, I’m a vegetarian for a myriad of reasons, some ethical (for example, because of its impact on the environment) and some personal (meat is disgusting to me).

    WIC allows me to get tofu instead of canned tuna.  Tofu is cheap (under $2 a pound), but it’s more expensive than a can of tuna (which is what meat eaters get), which is probably about 60 cents for a can.  Anyway, I suppose you could make the argument that the government (and, thus, taxpayers) are paying more for my personal choices and values.  That might be true, but, just because I’m on government assistance, should I not have the right to choose what I eat?  Should the government (and taxpayers) have the right to tell me to eat fish or GTFO?  Would people have a different opinion if tofu cost, say, five times more than the fish?  Or ten?  

    I can’t answer those questions for everyone.  Personally, I think assistance needs to be available for people who need it, and I think those people have some rights to choose the foods they will eat (to a reasonable extent).  

    • Trina

      My inclination is to think that if someone on food assistance wants to spend a portion of it on foods that specifically meet their religious or other chosen food restrictions such as vegetarian/vegan. 

      I’m disabled & qualified for SNAP, formerly food stamps (barely, got $28 a month lol) for a while; my income is now over the $900/month limit so I’m ineligible.  Even so, I make some hard choices at the grocery store.  I think a fine (with, I hope, some close monitoring in the future) is acceptable, though if the store were to offend again, it  should be disqualified.   Many of us who are low-income have difficulty enough just getting to a store, and many urban neighborhoods  don’t even have grocery stores in some of the areas where transportation is a major issue.  I can’t find the list online, but if I recall correctly, carbonated soft drinks are not eligible in my state anymore, along with some other items. 

      I hope those who can are giving to their local food banks, as there’s great need there, though personally I avoid them as much as possible (the last time I used one, most of the food was expired and I got food poisoning). 

      • Trina

        Sorry, incomplete sentence at the beginning, there.  I think the idea got across, though. 

    • Guest

      may I ask: do food stamps work like money or do you get a stamp for “one can of tuna” ? or “one item of protein equal X Y or Z”?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

    Alright, some of the commenters are misunderstanding the article.

    1. The store violated the rules for selling food for food stamps.  For our purposes, it doesn’t matter how.

    2. When you violate the rules, normally you are disqualified from participating in the food stamp program as a vendor.  This is a big penalty to your business, because it means that customers who want to use food stamps will go shop somewhere else.

    3. But there’s an exception in the penalty.  If punishing you would actually hurt your customers enough (cause them hardship), you can be given a monetary fine instead of being disqualified.

    4. This is probably because in some areas there just aren’t that many grocery stores, so suspending one could seriously impact shopping options for an entire region.

    5. This store is arguing that punishing it would create a hardship for its customers if it were disqualified.  If true, it could pay a penalty instead of being disqualified.  It wants this because its probably a less painful punishment.

    6. Its argument is that, although it’s not the only place its customers can buy food, it’s the only place that sells particular types of food for a particular cost.  Specifically, it sells discount halal meat.

    7. The reason the focus is on the religion aspect is probably because nutritionally equivalent non halal meat is probably easily available. 

    8. So if the comparison is between stores that sell a particular cut of steak (is steak halal?  dunno, not relevant for the point I’m making), he will lose because there will be no significant difference and therefore no hardship to his customers if they have to shop elsewhere.

    9. But if the comparison is between stores that sell a particular HALAL cut of steak, he may win, because there is a 15% cost difference between his offerings and that of other nearby stores.

    Got it?

  • http://www.bullshitexpress.com Izzy

    I don’t have a problem with it. Since a large portion of foods are kosher are you going to exclude all of them just because they happen to be kosher?

  • Kimpatsu

    I think this misses the issue that halal slaughtering causes unnecessary suffering to the animals, and so is already outlawed in countries such as the Netherlands. If halal were outlawed in the USA because it is cruel to the animals, how would American Muslims react then?

    • https://www.facebook.com/GentleGiantDK GentleGiant

      They’d probably operate underground halal slaughterhouses (it’s not unheard of, especially in more rural areas). Regular butchers (or islamic butchers) might sell meat on the sly from such places too (at the risk of getting caught, of course, but sometimes the profit from the sales outweigh the risk).

      Or they’d eat non-halal food, which is actually permissible if no halal food is available. Many muslims eat forbidden food regularly anyway (especially candy with gelatine in it – or drink alcohol).

  • Guest

    I couldn’t care less. people have food stamps. they can buy food with it. If it’s more expensive, they get less food for the same amount of stamps, right? It’s ok to not include cigarettes and booze because, well, they are not necessary. (though a cigarette addict could claim hardship) Those people may be on food stamps, but they are still people with the right to live their life however they want.

    • Guest

      PS: I agree with above poster re: veganism. as a side note, I don’t understand how meat is so important when buying a bag of beans or lentils cost almost nothing. I know, I am a student on a pretty tight budget. I have lived on 30$ a week. (rice, pasta and $$ bags of veggies, brick of cheese every two weeks, cut with a veggie peeler.)

  • http://twitter.com/nergllak Scott K

    Hmm… one aspect of religious foods is that animals are often killed more humanely than is regulated by the US. Imagine that the price of human meat was cheaper than that of beef–we wouldn’t make people with food stamps buy that.  And who knows, maybe reverse placebo would make the cheaper “sinful” foods less healthy for those consuming them.

    • https://www.facebook.com/GentleGiantDK GentleGiant

      Letting an animal bleed to death without stunning it first is more humane?
      Or are you arguing the opposite? It’s not 100% clear from your first sentence.

  • The

    This question makes us sound petty. Personally, I think it is far more appropriate to ask whether assistance programs like this should penalize stores for failing to enforce the rules of an agreement between WIC and the WIC recipient. If they want silly rules like this, just set up a system like they have for FSA accounts where all the FSA items are tagged in inventory and an FSA card will only pay for FSA items.

  • https://sites.google.com/site/ferulebezelssite/ Ferule Bezel

    This is why charity should be voluntary and run as locally as possible.  When the government runs it, bureaucratic rules
    become necessary to prevent lawsuits from the “entitled”.  These rules
    will be gamed by some to their advantage and others will be unfairly
    screwed over because of some anomalous situation.

    A small, locally run, voluntary charity wouldn’t have these problems. 
    The people distributing the goods or services would be intimately
    familiar with the situation.  They would be motivated and allowed to
    screen the scammers and bend the rules for legitimate outliers.  If they
    failed to do so adequately in either direction their donations would
    drop.

    As far as this situation goes, if there are enough Moslems in this
    neighborhood to support a store that sells magic meat, those that aren’t
    on welfare can use their mandatory charitable contributions (which are
    not light) to subsidize the dietary restrictions for those who are.

    • Nazani14

      A small, locally run charity could get away with denying help to anyone they didn’t like for whatever reason.  Before the New Deal, people had to rely heavily on local charities, and it nearly always involved sucking up to some church.  Rural people were and are SOL.
       I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time to investigate the credentials of all the people running local charities and audit their books.  Having an imperfect government agency with rules and lots of paperwork sounds waay better than distributors who are “intimately involved with the situation.”

  • Richard Hughes

    If they were the only source of halal meat in the area, then yes, I would consider it undue hardship. Preventing citizens from being able to hold to their religious strictures is an undue hardship. Even death row inmates can expect meals which match the dietary restrictions of their religion.

    Being the only source of _discount_ halal meat is less convincing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Natalie-A-Sera/743004321 Natalie A. Sera

    You wrote: I wonder, though, if specialty religious foods are more expensive
    than “regular” foods. If so, it seems a shame that families who
    participate in the food stamp program would use their limited resources
    to pay extra for food that has been blessed, when they could just opt
    for the sinful food and get more of it.

    But how would you feel if, as a vegetarian, you were told that if you visited a store that only sold meat, you should just opt for the meat? There are many reasons for people’s dietary habits, and I don’t think you should so flippantly judge what is very meaningful to those people. To be gross about it, you’d probably puke if you were forced to eat meat; Orthodox Jews and Muslims would probably puke if they were forced to eat non-Kosher or non-Halal meat. And even more if they were forced to eat pork.

    Let’s be friendly atheists, like in your title, and allow people their religious preferences when they’re not hurting anyone.

    • Katherine

      A few comments:
      1. Hemant did not write this, so don’t be mad at him!
      2. I agree with you!  I don’t argue that religious people should not be allowed to make these choices, because I think that they should.  I’m simply wondering aloud if they might be better off if their faith allowed them more freedom to choose what they eat.

  • JeseC

    Just as an aside – do we really *need* to regulate what people spend assistance money on?  I know the stereotypes of it being spent on cigarettes and beer.  But I also know people who have illegally used food stamps to buy items such as diapers and OTC pain meds.  It would be interesting to see studies of what kinds of ineligible goods are purchased with food stamps.

  • Miko

    Oh goody.  If there’s one thing we need more of, it’s attacks on the poor.

  • RSAnative

    Just because I’m not following; where do Haribo Bears come into the picture?

    • https://www.facebook.com/GentleGiantDK GentleGiant

      Those particular ones are Halal certified, i.e. they should be made without gelatine (made from pigs) = the store sells Halal goods. There’s the connection. :-)

  • Meigan1cameron

    Afcourse the thing should be genuine.
    RELIGIOUS FOOD

  • meigancam

    Very nicely written post it contains useful information for me.Now you make it easy for me to understand and implement the concept. Thank you for the post.


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