When state Sen. Holly Thompson Rehder was 18 and struggling to raise a baby, she applied for federal food assistance to help her get back on her feet.
“I can cook a pot of beans and cornbread and make that last a couple of days,” Rehder, R-Sikeston, said during Monday’s Senate debate.
But some people on food stamps can’t cook for themselves, she said, and it’s cheaper for them to buy warm meals than to hire someone to cook for them.
That’s why she voted Monday to advance a bill to allow elderly people, people with disabilities and unhoused Missourians to use food stamps for warm meals, not just grocery items. The bill, which was sponsored by Sen. Angela Mosley, D-St. Louis, was given initial approval by a 16-14 vote.
The vote has now become the latest flash point in an ongoing civil war between Senate Republicans aligned with the chamber’s leadership and the conservative caucus, with Rehder facing attacks from conservative caucus member Sen. Bob Onder that she “joined all the Democrats to expand the welfare state to cover food stamps for fast food.”
Rehder, who has repeatedly tussled with the conservative caucus all session, tweeted back at Onder: “It’s unfortunate that helping our elderly & disabled has now become a part of the political smokescreen being fanned by a small group. Unfortunate, but not surprising. James 1:27”
Under the bill, which would need to be approved one more time in the Senate before heading to the House, seniors, people with disabilities and unhoused individuals would have the option to redeem their SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits at private establishments that contract with the state’s Department of Social Services to offer hot meals at a discounted price.
During the debate, members of the Senate’s conservative caucus claimed the SNAP program is too fraudulent to expand, while proponents argued the bill doesn’t expand the program but rather offers more food options for the state’s most vulnerable.
“So this is our priority — to expand one of the most abused welfare programs in state government?” Onder said.
Sen. Karla May, D-St. Louis, shot back that Missouri had the responsibility to administer the federal program.
“So we’re going to blame these vulnerable citizens because of something that the state of Missouri is not doing?” May said.
Sen. Tony Luetkemeyer, R-Parkville, said at first he didn’t want the bill to go through because he didn’t want the SNAP benefits go towards “fast food.”
But he said Mosley reminded him that individuals receiving SNAP benefits weren’t “policed” to make sure that they’re eating healthy.
“That kind of stopped me in my tracks a little bit,” he said.
The restaurants offering these meals would have a contract with the state, so the SNAP recipients couldn’t just go to any restaurant, the bill states.
However, Sen. Mike Moon, R-Ash Grove, argued warm meals aren’t essential.
“I can live on cold food most of my life, I think,” Moon said. “Of course, I do eat warm foods on a regular occasion.”
Onder said he had planned on sitting quietly during the debate and then voting “no.” Mosley had approached him previously, he said, and asked him to allow the bill to go through without speaking against it during debate. He agreed because he thought the bill would die.
“I mean, we didn’t make any kind of a deal,” Onder said. “I just said, ‘Yeah, I’ll let it go through.’ But I’m starting to change my mind.”
Mosley later brought up the conversation she had with Onder, where she said he shook her hand and smiled after agreeing to let the bill go through. During the debate, she asked him directly if he was going to be a “man of his word” and “stand down.”
Onder replied, “no,” but he did eventually sit down and allow the bill to come up for a vote. Onder and the conservative caucus have continued to attack the bill on social media this week.
The bill received 16 votes to win initial approval, with 14 senators voting against and four absent. It will need 18 votes to win final passage and be sent to the House.
The legislative session ends at 6 p.m. May 13.
This article by Rebecca Rivas is published by permission of The Missouri Independent.