Fast Food and Food Stamps: Big Controversy, Small Program
By Pamela M. Prah, Staff Writer
"Restaurants want a piece of food stamp pie," read the headline of a recent USA Today story that said fast food restaurants "are lobbying for a piece of the action" as the number of businesses approved to accept food stamps grew by a third from 2005 to 2010.
The article correctly notes that since the 1970s, states have had the option of creating what the federal government calls a "Restaurant Meal Program" for food stamp recipients. But few states actually have created them. One of the reasons is because eligibility is restricted to the homeless, disabled or elderly who get food stamps. The programs are not open to everyone — a crucial fact that was missed when the story went viral.
The point of the restaurant meal program is to help those food stamp recipients who may not be able to cook for themselves or don't even have a place to cook, explains Aaron Lavallee, a spokesman for the U.S Department of Agriculture. Otherwise, these folks have few options for using their food stamps.
California, Arizona and Michigan have created restaurant meal programs statewide. Rhode Island hopes to have a new program up and running later this month, but its program is restricted to the city of Providence. Florida's program, which began in 2009, is limited to the homeless in one county, according to USDA.
The overall number of people and fast food restaurants participating in such programs is "extremely minimal," says USDA's Lavallee.
As part of the program, it's up to the states to find restaurants willing to participate and set them up to accept food stamps, now called Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. Because food stamps benefits are provided on debit cards, restaurants have to be able to accept the cards.
As this list from USDA makes clear, food stamps typically can be used only for "foods for the household to eat," such as breads, fruits, meats and dairy products. Alcohol, cigarettes, household supplies or "food that will be eaten in the store" do not qualify.
The restaurant meal program for the homeless, elderly and disabled is the exception. The largest program of this type in the country is Los Angeles County's Restaurant Meals Program , which has some 64,000 homeless, disabled and elderly enrolled and some 1,000 restaurants participating, says Jessica Bartholow, an advocate with the Western Center Law and Poverty in Sacramento.
The newest program, in Rhode Island, will be available to 33,000 homeless, elderly or disabled. That is about 20 percent of the nearly 165,000 Rhode Islanders receiving SNAP benefits, The Providence Journal reports . Currently, four Subway restaurants are participating, the paper says.
Congress would have to change the federal food stamp law in order to allow states to have restaurant meal programs for all food stamp recipients. Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association , says her organization thinks the current program is valuable the way it is now and is not asking Congress to change it. "For states that want to participate in the program, we support that decision," she says, although she stresses that it's a state-by-state decision.
The USA Today story cited lobbying by Yum! Brands , the parent company of Taco Bell and KFC, to expand the use of such programs. "It makes perfect sense to expand a program that's working well in California, Arizona and Michigan, enabling the homeless, elderly and disabled to purchase prepared meals with SNAP benefits in a restaurant environment just as they can purchase ingredients in a supermarket," Jonathan Blum, a spokesman for Yum! Brands, said in an email to Stateline .
With U.S. obesity rates climbing, one concern that was raised in online postings centered on whether taxpayer dollars should be spent on fast food for welfare recipients.
"We know there will be objections, but we see more of an upside than a downside," Frederick Sneesby, spokesman for the Rhode Island Department of Human Services told The Providence Journal .
Bartholow of the Western Center Law says the concerns are overblown. A meal at a fast food restaurant is better than no meal, she says, plus many fast food restaurants offer healthy choices. She says the recent controversy and attention on the program has a bright spot, prompting some of the 53 counties in California that aren't participating in the program to reconsider. "It's a great way for people who are not able to use their benefits in the traditional way."