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.