Debate Forum: 5/24/16

Carillon Historical Park  Alex and Katie ride bikes  April 21, 2015
© 2015 Photography by Skip Peterson Carillon Historical Park Alex and Katie ride bikes April 21, 2015 © 2015 Photography by Skip Peterson

The best thing since sliced bread

Fast food with food stamps: delicious or diabolical
By Sarah Sidlow

Since 1934, qualified Americans have relied on the USDA’s food stamp assistance program to buy grocery staples like bread and milk. But, back in 1934, you couldn’t drive up to a window and leave five seconds later with a dozen tacos. The times, they are a-changin’, and the face of federal food assistance may be, too.

Food stamps are more formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP—probably because they aren’t physical stamps anymore. Now, these benefits are loaded into an electronic system, known as Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT), which is accepted in all 50 states as a way to transfer federal assistance funds to a retailer.

Here’s another change, ye weary time travelers: SNAP may pay for more than just a loaf of bread; it could also pay for a loaded pizza.

In four states—Florida, California, Arizona and Michigan—fast-food chains are working to get a cut of those SNAPpy federal dollars.

While the fast-food angle is a new development, states have been allowed to opt in to a Restaurant Meals Program component of the Federal Food Stamps Act since 1977. The program enables qualified elderly, disabled and homeless SNAP recipients to buy food at authorized restaurants. SNAP is also accepted at qualifying convenience and discount stores, gas stations and pharmacies. In fact, the number of businesses that have been approved to accept food stamps has increased by a third between 2005 and 2010.

But how did we get from fresh fruit to fast food? Enter: Yum! Brands. The Louisville, Kentucky company operates a family of restaurants including Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut, and is just one of such purveyors applying for inclusion in the food stamp program.

Now, before we get into it, let’s clarify some things you may have seen in the news. This restaurant inclusion program applies to only qualifying elderly, disabled and homeless poor—not everyone who qualifies for SNAP benefits. Also, so far, actual food stamp usage at restaurants in participating states remains very low—only 0.21 percent of participating states’ food stamps dollars are spent at the restaurants who have accepted this form of payment for decades.

But there are still those who say you absolutely should not be able to buy fast food with SNAP funds. Delicious, tacos, pizza and especially pop aren’t exactly shining examples of nutritious meals for children and families. They cite the higher rates of obesity in low-income populations—which include SNAP recipients—compared to the general population, and argue that the fast food option will lead to more public health complications that will just weigh more heavily on taxpayers in the future.

Those in favor of letting Yum! and others get in on the action ask this: would you rather they go hungry?

They also stress the point that this fast food inclusion, as a subsection of the Restaurant Meals Program, is intended for the homeless, elderly and disabled—populations that may not have the physical capabilities or physical accommodations to prepare their own meals.

And finally, there’s what I like to call the what’s-it-to-ya defense: Federal officials already famously rejected former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s attempt to ban people from buying soda (that’s what they call it up there) with food stamps, so why would the fast food push be any different? Business is business, baby.

Reach Dayton City Paper editor Sarah Sidlow at

The policy is bad, not fast food

By Brad Sarchet

Should we allow all SNAP recipients to eat at fast food restaurants? Yes, we should for two reasons. At first I thought this issue might be black or white—either we do allow recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to use their benefits for fast food or we don’t. A rather naïve idea considering it’s a federal program. As it turns out there is so much gray here that not allowing every SNAP recipient to buy fast food seems to be a contradiction. Secondly, many of the SNAP recipients who do not qualify to eat in fast food restaurants would benefit significantly if they could.

The Food and Nutrition Act (FNA) of 2008 outlines what recipients of SNAP can and cannot purchase. Basically, they can buy any “food” from participating retailers, which include grocery and convenience stores, gas stations and pharmacies. Do gas stations sell a lot of nutritious food?

Further, the FNA defines an “eligible” food as any food or food product purchased for home consumption. The key phrase here is “home consumption.” Apparently to count as an eligible food item, you have to take it home to eat (or at least out of the store). This definition of “eligible food” is so broad that soft drinks, cookies, candy, cakes, ice cream, etc., are included as eligible foods.

Items that cannot be purchased with SNAP funds include alcohol and tobacco products, as well as non-food items like soap, toilet paper and hygiene products. Also included on the cannot-buy-list are hot foods or foods sold to be eaten within the store, which prohibits fast food restaurants. What I find puzzling is why someone with SNAP benefits cannot buy a hot rotisserie chicken or a deli sandwich to eat in the store, but they can buy a cartload of Mountain Dew, Oreos and potato chips.

Perhaps a low-income child cannot use SNAP to buy a large soda from McDonald’s (which is good), but s/he can use SNAP to buy a two-liter bottle of Coke and a box of doughnuts from any convenience store. Under the FNA definition of “eligible foods,” there are so many unhealthy choices available that targeting fast food is missing the mark regarding poor nutrition.

There is one addition, however, to “eligible foods” for a subset of SNAP recipients. This subset includes only the elderly, homeless and disabled, who are able to purchase and eat food in participating restaurants. This falls under the Restaurant Meal Program (RMP) to help SNAP receipts who may not have the means to store perishable food or cook food in their homes. Since 1977 this subset has been able to eat in restaurants.

As it’s currently applied, the RMP is federally funded but state administered, so any state (or individual county) can enroll in the RMP and determine which restaurants are acceptable. In these states/counties, the elderly, homeless and disabled can use their SNAP in enrolled restaurants, and you may be surprised by this list of restaurants—like Carl’s Jr., Domino’s Pizza, Burger King, KFC and Taco Bell. So the elderly, homeless and disabled are able to eat all their meals at fast food restaurants, but the rest of the SNAP recipients cannot. Does this lead to the conclusion that we are less concerned about the nutrition of our elderly, homeless and disabled than the rest of the SNAP users? This is clearly a serious contradiction in our nutritional policies, so I argue that we should allow all SNAP recipients to eat fast food.

My other argument in favor of allowing fast food for those on federal assistance comes from my 12 years as a community college professor. Many students who attend community college are desperately trying to improve their situation in life, having lost their jobs or being single parents in very depressed economic areas. Many of these students are on federal assistance on numerous levels and live in conditions similar to those who are eligible for RMP. But since they are physically capable, they are not eligible for RMP. One of my students was a single mother of three who walked to campus each day. All she could afford was a studio apartment with no kitchen, and she did not have the means (or the time) to shop for groceries and cook at home. She was an incredibly bright young woman and understood the importance of proper nutrition, but would explain how much farther her money went when she and her kids ate at fast food restaurants. But she didn’t make poor nutritional choices. She mentioned eating egg McMuffins and salads at McDonald’s and Subway for lunch and dinner. However, she could not use her federal funding for those meals, and I know she was not a rare case—many students are in the same situation. I would argue that this is failure of our federally funded nutritional programs.

Brad Sarchet, Ph.D., has advanced degrees in philosophy and physiology and is currently a biology professor at a local university. He is interested in the philosophy of science and animal physiology. He’s also an old hippy and Dead Head. Reach him at

Hungry for common sense

By Don Hurst

The current SNAP exception that allows some recipients, like the elderly, disabled and homeless, to purchase food at restaurants with their benefits makes sense. If people can’t prepare their own meals then of course they should be able to purchase food from somewhere. But expanding that exception is where the system breaks for taxpayers and recipients of government aid.

On its website, the USDA defines SNAP as a “food safety net.” The goal is to help make sure that everyone in our nation has their basic nutritional needs met and does not have to worry about starvation. We do possess the responsibility to feed the hungry. Aisles sag in our grocery stores under the weight of surplus food. Trash bags bulge from the wasted remnants of unfinished meals. We literally burst at the seams from overindulgence. In the face of that much abundance, allowing people to go hungry is a national disgrace.

However, the responsibility is not one-sided. Those who receive assistance also have a duty to act as good stewards of that assistance. The money does not come from the government. It first belonged to a taxpayer who now has less money for their own food bills. Welfare recipients don’t need to get on their knees and grovel, but they should respect the sacrifice.

According to a New York Times study, eating out can cost twice as much as cooking at home. If you can’t afford to feed yourself then it is even more important that you make intelligent choices for your food budget. Eating out is not a right, it’s a luxury. Advocates of expanding the restaurant exception need to remember that the dollars citizens can give to welfare programs are finite. Like all resources there comes a point when tax dollars become scarce.

Not only are fast food meals more expensive than home cooked meals upfront, but we also have to factor in the future health-related costs. Obesity related diseases already disproportionately affect SNAP recipients. Making it easier to consume unhealthy meals will only increase medical bills. If a person can’t afford to feed themselves then they probably can’t afford medical insurance either. Taxpayers will bear the financial burden.

Who cares if taxpayers have to pay these bills? They can afford it. They won’t even notice it.

Maybe we wouldn’t. But what about the poor? They’ll notice it.

We need to examine how mindless use of benefits harms the needy. According to a 2015 Kaiser Family Foundation study, individual federal SNAP users receive about $122 a month totaling to $74 billion annual budget. That’s just on the federal side. Despite the billions of dollars spent to combat hunger over 13 million children still lack basic food security according to a Feeding America report.

Our current food assistance program doesn’t meet the needs of the all the truly hungry people in our country. Over 13 million children lack adequate nutrition, but we can afford to let SNAP users buy a new Quesalupa from Taco Bell? That doesn’t make any sense.

If the SNAP program can afford to allow people to eat at fast food restaurants then that tells me there is too much money in the SNAP program. Fast food meals can cost twice as much as home cooked meals. Recipients have more than enough to meet their nutritional needs. So we can reduce the individual contribution and distribute more money to those 13 million kids who are actually starving.

Every dollar spent has to come from somewhere. That’s less money that could have gone to an after school program to keep kids from joining gangs. That’s less money that could have helped somebody with disabilities train for a job. When’s the last time you heard a school say, “We’re good. We don’t need any more money”?

When that fast food diet sends a recipient to the doctor the taxpayer will have to take care of the medical bills. Money spent on treating preventable diseases like obesity and type II diabetes steals from funds to help more serious cases. When the needy suffer from cancers or mental health issues, we can’t help them out as much because we have to take care of the person who ate themselves into a hospital bed.

It’s selfish. There is no other word for it.

We could always ask the taxpayers to fund even more programs. Raise taxes so even those 13 million hungry kids can get their McDonald’s and their diabetes medication. That’s not going to happen. It’s hard to convince taxpayers to pay even more when their contributions are mishandled.

We need to stop looking at benefits like bottomless magic money. We all, taxpayers and welfare recipients, carry an obligation to feed the greatest number of people. The poor don’t have the money to help, but they can make decisions to insure more money is available to assist others. A fast food meal here or there may seem like a small thing, but it takes away at least two meals from the truly hungry.

Don Hurst is a combat vet and a former police officer. He now lives in Dayton where he writes novels and plays. Reach DCP freelance writer Don Hurst at

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Reach DCP editor Sarah Sidlow at

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