Yum! Brands is working to support a measure in home state Kentucky that would allow restaurants to accept food stamps from homeless and disabled people who don’t have the ability or facilities to prepare meals. The nonprofit Coalition for the Homeless is backing the parent of Taco Bell, KFC and Pizza Hut, saying the change would allow more hungry people to obtain meals at a reduced price from small restaurants and cafes as well as quickservice chains.
The idea isn’t unprecedented, but it is rare and controversial in some circles. Michigan, Arizona and some California counties allow some food stamp recipients to use their benefits to pay for restaurant meals. Opponents say it’s a bad idea because it doesn’t focus on nutrition and is likely to promote unhealthy eating. In a column for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, registered dietitian Timi Gustafson argues that the plan is actually a subsidy for restaurants, and if the government is going to use nutrition to subsidize business, it should extend the program to farmers markets and other small businesses that sell fresh food and support local producers.
In fact, states including Colorado and Massachusetts began a program several years ago to accept food stamps at farmers markets. Markets in all states are allowed to accept them, provided they can fund pricey terminals needed to process debit cards that replaced paper food stamps in 2004. New York City’s Greenmarket saw food stamp spending double last year, and farmers markets in Philadelphia even offer food stamp recipients an incentive: For every $5 spent at a local farmers market, users get $2 in Philly Food Bucks to spend at markets citywide.
It’s not the first time that the dual goal of feeding people and supporting business has overlapped in the food stamp program, according to TIME magazine. The program had charitable and business motives when it was devised in 1939 as an experiment to support farm prices, using surplus wheat, butter and other food to feed the poor. About 20 million Americans used the program in the aftermath of the Depression, but the program ended in 1943 as demand waned. It was resurrected in 1959 as a pilot and grew into a permanent program with a million recipients by 1966 and 20 million by 1975. Enrollment has been on the rise since the recession started.
Should food stamp recipients be able to use their benefits to buy restaurant meals? Should they be limited in what kinds of meals they buy?
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