Several times a week Bonnie Ringo buys a crispy golden catfish special from JJ Fish & Chicken on 79th Street, just west of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
He uses his Illinois Link Card, which is the name of the state’s food stamp program. Ringo, 83, is able to use his benefits as part of a pilot program that allows food stamp holders to buy hot meals at restaurants.
“I like to get catfish different ways. It’s convenient and my money’s short,” said Ringo, a retired garbage disposal engineer. A lunch combo meal is about $8.
Earlier this year, Illinois joined six states — Arizona, Michigan, California, Rhode Island, Virginia and Maryland — in the restaurant pilot program. Individual states administer the benefits from the federal government’s food stamp program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Critics have long complained the federal law doesn’t allow benefits to be used for purchasing prepared food, such as a rotisserie chicken at a grocery store.
The new restaurant pilot tries to remedy at least part of the problem — but only for people who are elderly, experiencing homelessness or are disabled. And, so far, there are only five participating restaurants in Chicago: a single location of JJ Fish & Chicken, BJ’s Market, Firehouse Bakery and Grill, Doughboy’s and S2 Express Grill. These are all local fast casual restaurants on the South Side with takeout options, and a few of them are Black owned.
Fady Qetari owns the JJ franchise on 79th Street and often works the counter. He said he serves roughly 1,000 customers a week with a Link card.
“We know all our people here. We can help them to get food by the Link because it’s a lot of senior people here,” Qetari said.
Sophie Milam, vice president of public policy and advocacy for the Greater Chicago Food Depository, said the restaurant pilot is an important way to increase access to food for those who do not have access to a kitchen or the ability to cook food for themselves.
“One of the learnings that we have had in the implementation of the SNAP Restaurant Meals Program pilot in Illinois is the importance of community outreach. Food Depository staff went door to door in eligible communities to educate restaurants about the program and how to sign up,” Milam said.
Nutritionist Angela Odoms-Young said the restaurant program has pros and cons.
“I’ll start with the cons first. When you look at the food supply and restaurants, things like the amount of sodium may be detrimental to people,” she said.
A professor of food and nutrition at Cornell University who previously worked for more than a decade at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Odoms-Young is quick to say she’s not for food stamp restrictions — but she believes in support. She recalled a federal program that once gave food stamp holders incentives to eat healthier.
“They gave a 10% return when people purchase fruits and vegetables. And they found through an evaluation that people did eat more. You can put incentives in place to help people eat fruits and vegetables,” Odoms-Young said.
The Illinois Department of Human Services said there are a number of surveys and metrics they will use to assess the restaurant pilot. The agency did not respond to repeated requests for an interview about the program, which runs through summer 2023.