(RNN) – Some of the 40 million Americans currently receiving food stamps from the nation's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program may soon be able to use them at participating fast food restaurants.
Yum! Brands – the parent company of Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and A&W – is lobbying to have food stamps be accepted at their restaurants.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, SNAP allows low-income people to buy the food they need for "good health." A person receiving SNAP has a card similar to a debit card that has a monthly allowance for groceries. The balance is based on the person's monthly income and the number of people in the household.
Food stamps by the numbers
In the U.S.
- 40 million Americans on food stamps in 2010
-3.7 million on food stamps in 2011
- 3.2 million on food stamps in August 2010
- 1.9 million on food stamps in August 2011
Source: USDA, states of California, Florida, Michigan
"Prepared foods" are generally not accepted under SNAP, according to the USDA's website. However, an option from the 1977 Food Stamp Act allows states to permit restaurants to accept food stamps from people who are homeless, disabled or elderly.
Currently, there are three states that implement this program on a large scale: California, Arizona and Michigan. Florida and Rhode Island currently have pilot programs for accepting food stamps at restaurants. In Florida, this is limited to a single county and only applies to the homeless.
"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," Yum! spokesman Jonathan Blum told USA Today.
Yum! is currently doing fairly well without the lobbying. According to Yum! Brands' 2011 third quarter earnings release, company sales increased from almost $2.5 billion in September 2010 to $2.85 billion in September 2011.
The number of people receiving food stamp benefits has swelled in recent years. Participation increased from 25 million people in 2005 to 40 million in 2010. The cost has too – in 2005, the program gave less than $30 billion in benefits, and by 2010 it had reached almost $65 billion, according to the USDA.
The number of places accepting food stamps is going up as well. Locations accepting food stamps have increased from 156,000 in 2005 to almost 210,000 in 2010 and include non-conventional places like gas stations and discount stores.
Florida's pilot program
Florida is one of the more recent states to try the food stamp restaurant program. In 2010, the federal government started the Alachua County Food Assistance EBT Restaurant Program for the homeless.
"The Alachua County Poverty Reduction Board first suggested the program at a local hunger summit meeting. They asked how the food stamp program could be made more accessible to people. The goal was to find ways for the homeless, disabled, and the elderly to take advantage of a federal option to use food stamps at restaurants," said John Harrell of the Florida Department of Children and Families.
According to Harrell, homeless people in Alachua County – the county encompassing Gainesville - can receive prepared meals from certain restaurants if they have an issued ID card and are receiving food stamps. They must present this info when ordering at the nine restaurants currently open to the program.
We asked our Facebook fans what they thought about the proposal. Here's what you said:
"No, I don't think food stamps should be used to buy fast food. But I also disagree with it being used for cookies, candy, and sodas. It should be a tool to help teach better eating and shopping habits," said Melanie Adams (WAFF).
"We're supposed to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, it's one part of what we're here to do. So why not let it be used anywhere food is sold?" asked Yvette Marie (KPHO).
"There (are) some people that don't get food stamps and they work and they don't get to go out and eat because they can't afford it … I just think that it's unfair to those who need the help but can't get it and then the ones that do get it want to blow their benefits on fast food," said Michele Gossitt (WBRC).
Harrell says about 450 to 500 homeless people are part of this program. He says card usage is monitored, and on average, most people use them about four to six times each month.
The program is currently under review by the USDA as to whether to expand or continue it.
Cost in personal health?
For many nutritionists and dieticians, news of Yum!'s lobbying does not sit well. Lori Jones, a dietician and instructor at Saint Louis University's Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, says expanding the food stamps program to fast food restaurants could be detrimental to the nation's health.
"This is not a good move in relation to obesity," she said.
Jones says many low income people have trouble stretching their dollars to buy nutritious foods, especially when many restaurants serve high fat and high calorie food for cheap. She says restaurants also have issues trying to display their menus' nutrition facts available to the public.
"The concern is they don't do a whole lot of advertising or education about their menus' nutritional value," she said.
At Taco Bell, a bean burrito is 390 calories and 3.5 grams of saturated fat. Tack on an order of nachos and a 16 oz Pepsi, and the total calories of the whole meal climbs to 920 and saturated fat stands at 5.5 grams.
At KFC, an order of Original Recipe Breast and Drumstick, mashed potatoes with gravy and a 16 oz Pepsi stacks up to 780 calories and 7.5 grams of saturated fat.
At Pizza Hut, one slice of a 12" medium pan pepperoni pizza is 250 calories and 4.5 grams of saturated fat. If you have a meal of two of these slices, a breadstick and a 16 oz Pepsi, it adds up to 840 calories and 10 grams of saturated fat.
Dietary guidelines ask most Americans to limit saturated fat to 20 grams and caloric intake to 2,000 per day.
Jones recommends that people on food stamps use them on raw whole foods that could last more than one meal.
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