Food stamps for fast food in Texas?

Four states have allowed it, but debate goes beyond access

By Tonya Whitaker
NDG Staff Writer

While this is not a reality for the 3.5 million Texans who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, it hails true for food stamp recipients in Florida, Michigan, Arizona and California. In these states, recipients are able to make food purchases at restaurants such as Subway, KFC and Taco Bell.

Yum Brands, parent company of Kentucky Fried Chicken, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell, have recently embarked on the lobbying the Kentucky legislature to allow its residents on SNAP to use their benefits for purchases at their restaurants. Critics of the move are skeptical of the vendor’s motives, claiming it is only attempting to cash in on government money. Given high unemployment and economic woes of last three years, individuals have less money to spend on fast food today. Others say it will only contribute to the growing obesity problem in this nation. Health and advocates for the poor say allowing SNAP recipients to spend their money in fast-food restaurants will benefit individuals who cannot produce home-cooked meals, such as the elderly, disabled, and the homeless.

Food of choice
Many are concerned about the idea of individuals on a government program using taxpayer dollars on a “luxury” such as dining at a restaurant might seem extreme. But the issue goes beyond economics. Some medical professionals in North Texas have no problem with states allowing SNAP beneficiaries to use their benefits at fast-food establishments, as long as nutrition education accompanies the policy.

“I don’t think there is a straight yes or no answer to this issue,” said Richard Kurz, dean of the School of Public Health at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth. “The issue needs to be considered thoughtfully before racing out to make a decision to do this.”

Kurz said if food stamp recipients in Texas are ever allowed to use their benefits in restaurants, the policy must incent people to make healthier food choice.

He said several fast-food restaurants now include healthier items on their menus. Those who purchase those items should be rewarded.

In south Dallas and areas in Fort Worth, for example, Kurz notes there are several food deserts. Food deserts – areas in a city without regular food areas or major food stores – usually possess convenience stores as the only source for grocery needs for its residents.

According to Kurz, the UNT School of Public Health and Paul Quinn College have worked together to develop community gardens in southeast Dallas. These are efforts to create better food choices for individuals in the area.

“It won’t solve the whole problem, but it is a start,” he said.

Registered nurse Tammie Beaumont, director of Methodist Weight Management Institute in Dallas, said those who are quick to say the food stamps/fast food restaurant mesh will lead to more obesity are mistaken.

“If you are going to make a poor choice you can make it in a grocery store too,” she said. “It boils down to nutrition education.”

Beaumont believes if Texas attempts to consider a similar policy, it should follow the model of the Healthy Incentives Pilot program. The Farm Bill of 2008 authorized $20 million for pilot projects to evaluate if incentives would encourage recipients to purchase healthier foods.

There should be minimal regulations regarding food choices, in Beaumont’s view.

“Implement a program with some type of reward or incentive system, along with education for those who receive the benefits. That would be beneficial. It would help the obesity problem if people who make better food choices.”

Have and have not

In some homes today, the ability or opportunity to enjoy a home-cooked meal is disappearing. For some SNAP recipients – especially the elderly, homeless and disabled – the ability to prepare a meal is rare.

Abigail Tilton is the program director of the social work program at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. Tilton said the states that have allowed recipients to use the their benefits on hot food are allowing the poor to gain some type of nutrition.

“I hope that governments are taking into consideration that it benefits those who are unable to cook, elderly, disabled, no electricity or gas in their home and homeless. Essentially, in Texas, the change would have to come from the business community.”

The associate social work professor has seen areas of Denton where food deserts exist. Tilton said stores with the ability to sell produce and leaner meats to individuals on SNAP – such as Wal-Mart and Kroger – are found in Denton’s more affluent neighborhoods.

Tilton said provisions in the food stamp program for the purchase of cooked foods have existed since the 1970s. For example, in the case of a natural disaster declaration, some individuals do not have access to their homes to cook meals. Therefore, the United States Department of Agriculture allows recipients to use their benefits to purchase prepared foods.

Stephanie Goodman, spokesperson for the Texas Health and Human Services Commission, told the North Dallas Gazette “that is not something we anticipate in Texas” and food stamps for hot, prepared meals for all Texas SNAP recipients is not being considered in Austin. But, Goodman said the federal program does make an exception for someone who is homeless and a disability.

“No state is immune to the lobbying,” Tilton said. “I would not immediately scratch Texas off the list.”

Beaumont, Kurz and Tilton agree that extending the use of SNAP benefits would prevent individuals from going hungry. In addition, a program that includes nutrition education on the government’s part would curb unhealthy eating habits that plague some SNAP benefit recipients.

“For change to take place, it would have to come from the business community,” Tilton said. “As soon grocery stores that offer as vegetables, fruits and lean meats come to these areas, we will begin to see change in the eating habits of the residents in these communities.”

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