Should food stamps be used to buy fast food?
Yum Brands, corporate owner of KFC (formerly known as Kentucky Fried Chicken), Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s and Taco Bell is lobbying at the federal level to allow food stamps to be accepted at its fast food restaurants.
I think this is a bad idea, but what do I know? So I asked some smart(er) people.
FYI BACKSTORY: The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), used to be called the Food Stamp program. The amount a household qualifies for will depend on the household’s size, income, and expenses. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, “a household should be able to buy a month’s worth of healthy food with this amount of money.” Typically, for a four-person household, the maximum monthly allotment is $398. See here.
Yum Brands claim that the majority of food stamps beneficiaries do not have access to prepared meals, insofar as indicating that a majority are homeless, lacking transportation much less a kitchen, and their next meal may very well be one prepared at a local gas station (see “Fast-Food Giant Lobbies For Food Stamp Acceptance.”) However, if nearly 40 million Americans use food stamps (according to The New York Times), is Yum Brands making an obtuse implication that nearly 40 million Americans are homeless and without transportation?
According to new research, “forty-two percent of low-income women in the United States are obese, and the rate of obesity is even higher among women who participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — formerly the food stamp program” said Diane M. Gibson, associate professor at Baruch College.
The program is called “Supplemental Nutrition Assistance” meaning it is meant to enhance or complete (definition of “supplemental”) food purchases necessary for health and growth (definition of “nutrition”). Fast food does none of those things.
This subject became a Facebook status update topic of debate. I asked the following seven, in the form of an email roundtable, what were their thoughts on food stamps being used to buy fast food:
- Patricia Fisher: a registered nurse and health writer (worked in government grant programs with food stamps recipients)
- Michele Alonso: a Holistic Health Counselor and Certified Personal Trainer (family received food stamps benefits)
- John Hymers, PhD: professor or philosophy at La Salle University with a concentration in food and cuisine
- Gina Keatley: founder and director Nourishing NYC, a not-for-profit community food program
- Stephanie F: artist, writer and mother on food stamps
- Sara Lunsford: editor and mother was on food stamps
- Gena Morris: writer and mother of five
- Jill Nussinow, MS: author and registered dietician
Food stamps is mandated by the government not to be used to purchase “prepared foods,” however Yum Brands, corporate owner of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell is lobbying at the federal level to allow foods stamps to be accepted at its fast food restaurants. Do you think this is a good idea?
Patricia Fischer: Eating out isn’t a right, it’s a privilege. If you want to eat out, then earn the money to do so. There are many people in this country working hard and don’t eat out because they are cutting financial corners. Going out to eat used to be a special event, but now with so many people working longer hours, the want for convenience has increased over the years, but that doesn’t mean it should be free.
Michele Alonso: This is a terrible idea. Food should be nourishment, and allowing people who are already in a financial corner to consume such poor quality food will lead to health problems which will only cost them or the government more money. You can prepare healthy food on a budget, under 30 minutes. It just takes effort.
Prof. John Hymers: Food stamps at fast food restaurants would encourage recipients to eat poorly, and in so doing, endanger their health. These cheap calories will not be so cheap once they result in any number of diet-related illnesses, which of course will then need to be treated by the health-care system. Moreover, if we see food stamps as temporary assistance, then another mistake is being made. Assistance is a leg up. If we allow food stamps at restaurants, we are – as the old saw goes – giving them a fish instead of teaching them to fish. This cycle of being served only ends up in a complete lack of mastery. Not knowing how – or wanting - to feed themselves, people can become even more dependent on the fast food industry, which in turn will revel in seeing its role as socially responsible. We can’t make anyone want to be responsible for their own health – but we can certainly discourage apathy by not financing it.
Gina Keatley: Fast food is a convenience and the intention of food stamps is to provide needed nourishment, not convenience foods. However, Yum Brands have products that are considered healthy–this is still inappropriate. To that point, Yum Brands sells products in grocery stores that already qualify; they just need to be assembled/prepared.
Stephanie F: I am not against these particular restaurants wanting to implement food stamps. It is certainly up to the individual to seek out what is best for them. Everyone has a right to choose.
Sara Lunsford: Food stamps are supposed to be temporary assistance, not a way of life. It’s supposed to be a stop gap, and for emergent needs. Fast food is not an emergent need, unless you’re living under a bridge and buys you a cheeseburger. It’s a treat or a convenience. Dining out, regardless of fast food or “sit down” restaurant is a luxury. It’s also unhealthy. As a temporary assistance, by allowing fast food purchases, we’re not enabling people to work. All of the chemicals and processing in fast food adds to depression, weight gain, decreased mental acuity… things that make being a productive member of our society difficult, if not impossible.
Gena Morris: Making unhealthy options available will only create a rise in obesity. It is also more expensive to eat at these places. The price of one meal at a fast food restaurant could feed that same family for a few more days.
Jill Nussinow: I am not sure if it’s a good or bad idea – it certainly won’t help people improve their health. And if taxpayer money is spent on this, I’d like to see it help in some way. The flip side is that some people don’t have access to kitchens, supermarkets and other ways to prepare food. This might help people have access to food. The big question here is, “Is some food better than no food?” I think so but I’d rather see mobile produce trucks before people have access to fast food.
If your family qualified for supplemental income in the form of food stamps but were required to take a mandatory, free, one-day educational course on making better food choices, would you do it?
Patricia Fischer: Possibly. It would depend on who taught the class, what they were teaching, and what they expected us to take away from the class.
Michele Alonso: Of course. Another idea that should be implemented is not only a educational course on making better choices, but people need to know how important it is for them to eat healthy and to feed their children in such a way. Most people don’t ever make the correlations between poor sleeping habits, misbehaving children, stress, etc to the food they are eating.
Gina Keatley: I would, but I have a love of food already. If families were required to take this class would it be an assembly line or something that the clients can really gain knowledge from?
Stephanie F: I would certainly do it as I am always seeking knowledge on ways that I can eat more healthy.
Sara Lunsford: Sure. My family actually still qualifies for food stamps, but we don’t utilize them because we know there are other people in more emergent need than we are.
Gena Morris: Yes. I wish these were available to the public a lot more frequently.
Jill Nussinow: If the class was mandatory, I would do it, hoping to learn something helpful. Being sick is expensive in many ways. (You might not know that initially when food stamps first came out, there was supposed to be a nutrition education component with it. It never happened but if it had, things would be much different now and we wouldn’t be having the conversation.)
Do you think the government should prohibit “able-bodied” citizens, i.e.: someone typically considered able to work, and not disabled, from receiving food stamps?
Patricia Fischer: Wasn’t there something stated long ago that said “You don’t work you don’t eat?” People are inherently lazy and one of the few things that keeps people motivated to get in their car and go to work each day is the fear of going hungry and having no place to live. Giving it away offers no incentive. The system is so biased and uneven on who qualifies, that it makes it almost impossible to get off assistance once you’re on. Best way to handle it is to keep people working or motivate them to be productive and one way to do that is to not offer handouts. What was the saying, “Give a man a fish; you have fed him for today. Teach a man to fish; and you have fed him for a lifetime”
Michele Alonso: Just because someone is “able-bodied” does not mean that there might be times in their life where they need some assistance. Injuries happen, spouses lose their jobs, family emergencies all happen and we live in such an amazing country where we should be able to lend a hand when we can.
Gina Keatley: No. I feel that there are circumstances where people genuinely need assistance and I’m proud to live in a country where that service is available.
Stephanie F: No, because although someone may be able bodied they may not be well off financially to afford a meal. In these days and times especially it is awfully hard with unemployment being so high.
Sara Lunsford: No. I think every instance needs to be considered on a case by case basis. Circumstances are often beyond a person’s control. I do think that the system needs to be revamped because there are too many loopholes and abuses of the system while people in real need go without.
Gena Morris: I feel the idea of food stamps should be a temporary stepping stone. There should be mandatory steps taken to continue to receive them that allows for the recipients to learn enough to eventually support themselves enough to not need food stamps or assistance.
Jill Nussinow: Sometimes there are reasons that people need assistance. We have a shortage of jobs right now, so my answer is no, the government should not prohibit.
If you were on food stamps, would you be concerned with your weight?
Patricia Fischer: I’d be more concerned with figuring out how to get off food stamps.
Gina Keatley: There is a connection between poverty and obesity, I would be concerned and the impoverished overweight and obese clients I work with are concerned as well.
Stephanie F: I am concerned about my weight with or without being on food stamps. I definitely need to be more in shape.
Sara Lunsford: Yes. I was concerned with my weight and my health when I was on WIC. The nutritionist I had to work with wasn’t knowledgeable about food allergies and kept pushing me towards my trigger foods.
Gena Morris: No. I am not even close to being overweight.
Jill Nussinow: I believe that many people on food stamps, but not all, don’t have their weight as a top priority. Getting enough food for their money so that they can live might be the priority. Health is equally as important as weight. Many people with diabetes are overweight and it’s a whole lifestyle issue.
If you had the choice to use food stamps at fast food restaurants, like KFC, Taco Bell and Pizza Hut or receive a 50 percent discount on meat and produce — in addition to using food stamps — at a grocery store, which would you choose?
Patricia Fischer: I’d like to think I’d go to the grocery store, but I like to cook. Again, people are going to do what is easiest, but I can’t say for sure I’d never go to these places and use the stamps from time to time. I’d use the resources smarter than that.
Gina Keatley: 50 percent off.
Stephanie F: I would use both to be honest. Speaking for myself I do not eat out at fast food places on the regular, but it is okay to indulge maybe one time, not making it a habit of course. I usually buy groceries and make an effort to have balance in what I eat.
Sara Lunsford: Discount and groceries all day long.
Gena Morris: I would choose the 50 percent discount. I am not a fan of eating out regularly at all.
Jill Nussinow: I would choose the discount on food because I prefer to eat “real” food. But I am not sure if people who receive food stamps are into cooking and eating healthfully. If they were, then it would be easy to make that choice. But when you can buy some fast food sandwich for two dollars and it would cost that to make it and you have to put in the time, I can see why fast food would seem better. It’s all about resources. If the fast food companies had to contribute to health care because people who habitually live on fast food are more prone to have health issues, then the cost of that ultra-cheap, high fat, salt and sugar food would go up. And again, this conversation wouldn’t need to happen.
Do you think using food stamps to make restaurant food readily available to those unable, i.e: aged, disabled, homeless is morally sound or will it lead to an abuse of the system?
Patricia Fischer: Absolutely
Gina Keatley: There are already abuses of the system, this can be seen every day in New York City and by adding restaurants to the list of places that accept food stamps it would 1) increase the cost of restaurant food and 2) provide less nutrients.
Stephanie F: Again, I feel that it all depends on the individual and if they decide on eating more on the healthy side than not.
Sara Lunsford: No, it’s not morally sound. The purpose of food stamps is to take care of people who can’t take care of themselves. By offering them unhealthy choices, we’re not truly being charitable or caring for their welfare. We’re feeding corporate greed instead of people.
Gena Morris: I believe it will lead to an abuse of the system. Eating out is a luxury. We aren’t going to start giving them money to pay for cable, movies and other entertainment. Our temporary assistant programs should be available to those who can’t meet their needs not desires.
Jill Nussinow: We need to change the system so that people who need better food can get it through Meals on Wheels, through shelters, through other means which don’t yet exist and so on. If people only have access to fast food, it is what they will eat. But a steady diet of fast food will lead to health issues. I think that allowing fast food is not a good idea because it doesn’t address the “real” issues of food access, food security and food knowledge for all people.
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