Food stamps cannot be used to purchase prepared food, but a number of restaurants have been lobbying to change that, according to new data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
Arizona, California, Michigan and Florida allow food stamp recipients who meet strict requirements to use their benefits at restaurants. To qualify, one has to be disabled, elderly or homeless.
According to USDA data, the number of businesses approved to accept food stamps between 2005 and 2010 swelled from 156,000 to 209,000. Records also show that food stamp benefits increased from $28.5 billion to $64.7 billion during the same time period.
Restaurants realize there is big money at stake, and apparently want a piece of the action.
Food stamps are distributed under the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). The program usually does not allow recipients to purchase prepared or hot food. However, since the 1970s, the federal government has, under a pilot program, let states decide whether disabled, elderly and homeless people could use food stamps in restaurants, according to USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel.
Yum! Brands, whose restaurants include Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut, has been lobbying to allow food stamp recipients to buy the company’s fast food with SNAP benefits.
"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," Yum! Brands spokesman Jonathan Blum said in a statement.
The National Restaurant Association supports Yum! but the National Association of Convenience Stores does not.
"If the pie's only so big, nobody's going to want to see the pie sliced thinner," Convenience Stores spokesman Jeff Lenard told USA Today.
The pilot program has been sparking controversy amongst food stamp vendors and public health officials, who consider using supplemental and nutritional benefits antithetical to the federal program's aim.
Edward Cooney, of the Congressional Hunger Center countered, saying, "They think going hungry is better? I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing."
The Arizona Department of Economic Security admits the program is not perfect but it does not want to dictate what people eligible for the pilot program can eat.
"There are people who for one reason or another cannot cook for themselves. If you are homeless you cannot cook for yourself if you have a disability that makes it difficult to cook. You do not cook for yourself and research shows some seniors tend not to cook or eat if they cannot get a hot meal,” said Steve Meissner from the Arizona Dept. of Economic Security, told USA Today.
The Arizona Dept. of Economic Security did note that food stamps will not go far in restaurants and that people were better off buying food in bulk.