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Visitors to UW-Madison dining halls could use food stamps to pay for their meals as soon as this fall.

UW-Madison students could soon be able to use food stamps to pay for meals on campus.

University Housing officials are working on a plan that would let students and others who receive aid through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program use those benefits at campus dining halls and markets starting in the fall 2017 semester. They believe the initiative would make UW-Madison the first college in the country to accept food stamps at cafeterias.

Student advocates who pushed for the change say it’s a way for UW to better meet the needs of low-income students. “This opens the doors to a more inclusive campus where students from all backgrounds feel welcomed,” Associated Students of Madison chairwoman Carmen Gosey said.

Brooke Evans, an ASM member who lobbied for the new program, said it can be difficult for those who rely on government assistance to “feel normal” as students, because they can’t eat at dining halls with their peers.

“We were eating isolated, not next to other people,” said Evans, a formerly homeless student who has advocated for initiatives such as a campus food pantry to support low-income students.

UW officials have some logistical work to do before the plan becomes a reality.

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University Housing must apply to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for approval to become a SNAP retailer, and inspectors will have to visit campus dining facilities.

Because federal rules limit what types of food may be purchased with government assistance, University Housing director Jeff Novak said the office will have to go through all of the items it sells to determine what is eligible.

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For instance, students could not use food stamps to buy certain prepared, hot items, such as pizza, Novak said, but could use them for cold items such as deli sandwiches or food from a salad bar.

UW’s dining halls work on an a la carte system, in which students buy items individually, rather than paying a fixed price for a meal.

University Housing also operates markets, which function much like convenience stores, where Novak said integrating SNAP benefits would be simpler.

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