Food Stamps For Fast Food? Yum, Say Restaurants

Taco BellAmerica's poor, who are more likely to be plagued with poor nutrition and stricken with obesity than higher income groups, statistics show, are also more likely to get their meals from fast food restaurants. Where else can you get a days' worth of calories for $5, no preparation required?

And this is the problem that bedevils a growing group of food policy experts, who see the external costs of such dietary choices in the rising cost of obesity and diet-related health problems. It's a vicious circle, too: Children who are raised in households in which they receive low-quality food are more likely to be poor themselves, in addition to suffering from diet-related diseases and struggling in school.

There's even evidence that high-calorie, low-nutrient-value diets (think sodas, french fries and low-quality proteins like hamburgers and chicken nuggets) contribute to aggressive risk-taking behavior.All these concerns paint a picture of a sad, endless loop: Low income leads to unstable homes, unfortunate health outcomes and poor nutrition; unstable homes, unfortunate health outcomes and poor nutrition lead to lower incomes. And while we're at it, the circumstances of low income and poor nutrition are related to high debt (from health care bills) and poor success in school and criminal convictions.

It's enough to get food policy activists to call for better options for poor Americans, like better access to fresh food, extra food stamp benefits for use at farmer's markets, and outreach by community gardens to lower-income neighborhoods.

And it's enough for fast food restaurants to call on more states to allow for the use of food stamps in their restaurants. Wait, hang on, what?

That's right. While most states allow food stamps to be used for soda, candy, ice cream and Doritos but not for hot prepared food meant to be eaten at the establishment where it's sold, a few states allow SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients to use their benefits for fast food. Arizona, parts of California and Michigan already let food stamp users buy ready-made food at fast food restaurants, including Subway, KFC, Jack in the Box, Burger King, Pizza Hut and El Pollo Loco.

The idea here is that many homeless SNAP recipients, as well as those with unstable living conditions -- say, those who are sleeping on the couch of family or friends, or who are living in cramped and insufficient quarters -- don't have a place to prepare food. And, the theory goes, it's better to let them buy fried chicken and Quarter Pounders than candy bars and cold burritos from a convenience store.

Whatever your opinion on the relative nutritional merits of candy bars vs. chalupas, it's a hard argument to swallow without some serious discomfort. Yum! Brands, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and KFC, thinks it's a great idea, however, and is lobbying the state of Kentucky to join its (umm) progressive fellow fast-food-accepting states and allow the use of SNAP benefits in its restaurants.

"We think it's a win-win," Paul Carothers, Yum! Brands' vice president for government affairs told the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It's obviously of interest from a business standpoint, and it provides access to the elderly homeless and disabled who are often underserved."

Yes, it's certainly of interest from a business standpoint. At the beginning of the month, when food stamp benefits are (as my husband says) "juiced" into the accounts of millions of Americans, there's typically a surge of sales at grocery stores. It's well-known that most SNAP recipients don't have enough benefits to make it through the month, whether due to poor planning or benefits insufficient to fill the hole between income and needs.

Wouldn't it be great, fast food restaurants must be thinking, to have some of that first-of-the-month spending come to us?

Sure thing. It would be great for the fast food restaurant owners and for their shareholders but maybe not so delicious for the health outcomes of lower income Americans who depend on food stamps. Or for the long-term economic and social health of the communities where larger proportions of SNAP recipients live.

Frankly, we'd all be better off if we spent our energies and lobbying dollars working to get more fresh, nutrient dense food in the hands of the poor (and help preparing it, if that's a problem, in community-supported kitchens and other interesting new ideas) than more food that's nutrient-bereft and high-calorie -- even if it is hot.
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