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Food Stamps for Restaurants

America’s elderly, disabled and homeless citizens are more likely to obtain their daily dose of calories from fast food restaurants. Where else can they get food for five dollars, no cooking required?

Food stamps that are given out to these residents through the Department of Agriculture’s SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) are supposed to help the recipients in making their dollar go further by purchasing food at grocery stores which can be cooked at home. But then, the homeless do not have kitchens, and the disabled and elderly cannot cook for themselves.

With this in mind, restaurants are now lobbying that they be approved to accept food stamps from SNAP recipients all over the country. Louisville’s Yum! Brands, owner of fast food chains KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut and Long John Silver’s is initiating the move, encouraging other restaurants to get involved.

Federal regulations generally disallow food stamp benefits from being swapped for ready meals, although there had been a provision back in the 70s that permits individual states to allow restaurants in accepting food stamps. For now, only four states allow this – California, Arizona, Michigan and Florida.

“It makes sense to spread out a program that seems to be working well in these four states, enabling the disabled, elderly and homeless to buy prepared meals in a restaurant environment,” said Jonathan Blum, a Yum! spokesman.

There is, apparently, a vast amount of money at stake here, with the USDA records showing that SNAP benefits have swelled from $28.5 billion to $64.7 billion in just 5 years. According to USDA data, the number of business establishments which are certified in SNAP went from 156,000 to almost 209,000 between the years 2005 and 2010. At the beginning of each month, when food stamps are distributed to its beneficiaries, there’s normally a stream of sales at convenience and grocery stores.

The National Restaurant Association gives its full support to Yum!, but the National Association of Convenience Stores opposes the idea. The latter thinks that the move is not in the best interest of the public’s health, as they think of the fast food restaurant’s seemingly ‘unhealthy’ menu in menu covers. There’s also a vast majority who opposes to the idea of allowing food stamps to be exchanged for soft drinks, junk food and candies—they feel that SNAP benefits should only be limited to the basic staples: bread, milk, meat, vegetables and cheese, and perhaps an allowance for toiletries. But not fast food.

The restaurants’ point of argument, however, is that homeless people, along with persons with unstable home conditions –those who sleeps on couches of their friends or family, or those who live in insufficient and cramped quarters—do not have an area to prepare their food. The theory is that it is better to allow them to purchase any meals from the fast food restaurants’ menu in superior menu covers, such as hot fried chicken and freshly-cooked fast food meals, rather than allowing them to get candy bars and cold sandwiches from convenience stores.

And many believe that the American people, however poor they are, should be allowed to choose whatever food they want. Marcia Wells, vice president of communications of the Mid-South Food Bank, who often visits food distribution centers, believes that these people can choose wisely. “Those who often do not know where they would get their next meal are generally sensible about the food that they eat,” she said.

Some of the fast food chains that have been allowed by the four states to accept food stamps are Taco Bell, KFC, Subway, Jack-in-the-Box, Pizza Hut, El Pollo Loco and Burger King.