Oh goodness gracious: Yum! Brands, the purveyor of fine establishments like KFC, Long John Silver’s and the combination Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, is now lobbying the U.S. Department of Agriculture to be able to accept food stamps. According to USA Today, the number of businesses approved to accept food stamps grew by a third from 2005-2010, as vendors from gas station convenience stores to farmer’s markets joined the program—and now fast food corporations are feeling left out.
Food stamps—part of the government’s supplemental nutrition assistance program, or SNAP—are distributed via debit-card system these days, and the number of Americans using the program has recently topped 45 million (the highest number since the program began in 1939). There are no nutritional guidelines for what can and can’t be purchased with SNAP benefits—any fresh or packaged food or beverage items are fair game, which has led to a lot of controversy. Remember the ‘hipsters on food stamps’ controversy last year (OMG, they’re buying vegan sausage), or the hoopla when New York City proposed excluding soda from the program (an idea federal officials ultimately rejected)? A lot of people believe there should be broader restrictions on what food stamp users can and can’t purchase. A lot of people vehemently disagree.
Food stamps cannot, in most cases, be used to purchase prepared (i.e., restaurant) food. A few states, however, have provisions allowing disabled, elderly and homeless individuals to use SNAP benefits at restaurants, under the theory that these folks may not be able to prepare food at home themselves. Yum! is hoping more states follow suit. ”It makes perfect sense to expand a program that’s working well,” Yum! spokesman Jonathan Blum told USA Today. It’s “enabling the homeless, elderly and disabled to purchase prepared meals with SNAP benefits in a restaurant environment.”
That’s where Mr. Blum and I are going to have to agree to disagree. Allowing Yum! or other fast food programs to accept SNAP benefits would be, essentially, just a subsidy program for big corporations, and at the detriment of the American people’s health. I’m much less nanny-state about food stamp benefits than many—the goal of the program is to prevent hunger and Americans starving to death, not let Uncle Sam dictate what individuals should and shouldn’t eat. If the program originally included restaurants, and people were campaigning to exclude certain fast food, I might even be against it. But the program was not set up that way (with good reason, in my humble opinion), and I see no reason for letting fast food restaurants in on it now.
Yum! is trying to pull the humanitarian card—fast food is the only cheap and accessible for the low-income and disadvantaged!—which is so disingenuous I don’t know where to begin. The facts are that a) there are plenty of grocery store, convenience store and farmer’s market options that don’t require preparation, for those unable to make meals at home, b) there are plenty of cheap (packaged and fresh) food items already available for purchase with food stamps, and c) while fast food may help rectify people’s hunger, it does very little in terms of nutrition. We have fat kids in this country as malnourished as impoverished third-world children because their diets are so high in empty calories. I really don’t think what anybody—even the elderly, disabled or homeless—in this country needs is government-subsidized mashed potato bowls and cheesy-bite pizza.