by Marion Nestle
Sep 14 2011

Clarification of yesterday’s post on using SNAP for fast food

As many of you have pointed out, the use of SNAP benefits in fast food restaurants is a state decision but one that is supposed to be limited to the elderly, disabled, and homeless (whether those limitations are adhered to in practice is another question).

This morning I received further clarification from Aaron Lavallee, Communications Coordinator in the USDA Office of Communications. Mr. Lavallee, whom I don’t think I’ve met, writes:


I just read your post in the Atlantic and wanted to follow up with you with some information that can clarify some of the misinformation posted and to help bring accuracy to parts that may be misleading for your readers.

You probably know most of this but Restaurant Meal Program has been an option for states – state run, state contracted, state administered – since the 1977 Food Stamp Act. The decision to establish a restaurant meal program is made entirely at the state level.

Most importantly, the ONLY people who qualify are the elderly, disabled, and homeless, as this provision is intended to assist people who are unable to prepare meals at home or in a traditional kitchen setting. This key fact and requirement of the law is mentioned nowhere in your article and we can both agree that with that clarification this story changes drastically.

Since 1977 the decision to establish a restaurant meal program has been made by only a handful of states and because of this participation is very low.

As noted in your article, California, Arizona, and Michigan are operating State administered restaurant programs serving their elderly, homeless, and disabled populations. Rhode Island began a limited pilot restaurant program on August 1, 2011. However you also mention Florida without providing the facts to your readers. In 2009, Florida began operating a pilot program in one county and has a total of only 14 restaurants participating. Furthermore in Florida this option is ONLY available to the homeless. To date Florida has not expanded that pilot.

The original emails to you from readers Robyn and Will were inaccurate – this is not an option for any SNAP beneficiary which is what they are thinking.

Additionally you close by drawing a false conclusion – “In June 2011 alone, according to USDA, 45 million Americans received an average of $133 in benefits at a total cost to taxpayers of more than $6 billion. That’s a lot of money to spend on fast food.” This can’t be spent on fast food because it is not an option for the 45 million Americans on SNAP.

Your voice has been and will continue to be an important one when it comes to nutrition in America. Your opinion continues to add to the healthy dialogue on critical issues ranging from MyPlate to the school meal programs. Your insight and knowledge on these topics is beneficial to everyone working to improve the health and wellbeing of Americans.

This is a critical opportunity for those of us with the ability to communicate to do so actively and accurately.

Because of that I ask that you add a clarifying note to your blog post highlighting the facts and clarifying for your readers you’re the truth about this program.

Please know that I am glad to help provide any information I can. Tim Laskawy at Grist hit the nail on the head with his piece.

I apologize for not making the restrictions clear in my original post and I thank all of you and Mr. Lavallee for taking the trouble to file corrections.

I also should have said that the billions of dollars in SNAP benefits could be a lot to spend on fast food. 

SNAP must look like a honey pot to fast food and other companies that cannot wait to get their hands on some of those benefits.  That’s what Yum! (Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, etc) is trying to do.

But make no mistake.  Yum! is not a social service agency concerned about feeding the elderly, disabled, or homeless.  Yum! wants to attract low-income people with SNAP money to spend to its fast food restaurants.

  • Colonel Gracias

    In a column on Daily Kos a few weeks ago, the new york city coalition against hunger’s director joel berg wrote about Bloomberg’s two year pilot to exclude soda from allowable purchases with SNAP funds in nyc. He wrote:
    “While supporters of the ban often implied that opponents were somehow pro-soda, nothing could be further from the truth. For the record, the organization I manage receives no money from soda companies… In fact, I hold special contempt for food industry efforts that target its unhealthiest products to low-income neighborhoods, children, and communities of color.”

    Seeing as how one of his major colleagues in successfully opposing the Bloomberg pilot was Mr. Cooney, wonder how Mr. Berg might react to these troubling revelations that not only is Cooney’s Congressional Hunger Center funded by YUM! Brands, but funded also by soda lobbyists American Beverage Association and PepsiCo.

    Also can’t help but wonder how Mr. Berg can accept funding from Walmart, consider they undoubtedly peddle their soda in low-income community of color neighborhoods at bargain basement prices, among many other unsavory management tactics of the Walmart family corporation

    Finally, great to see Mr. Lavallee sending in his helpful corrections, and wonder if he has any thoughts he’d like to share about USDA policy on industry-funded lobbying, especially on the nutrition programs.

  • Jill

    Allowing elderly people who cannot prepare a meal in the home the option to replace that meal with fast food is offensive.

    My grandmother is showing signs of dementia. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about her health needs (regarding dementia and nutrition) it’s that she needs to stop eating fast food meat immediately.

    At a time when nutrition is so vital in their lives, It seems so wrong to promote fast food to the elderly as an equal option.

  • MYoung

    Jill, My father has dementia. It is hard to accept this but when families are not involved, where are these patients to get their food? Make no mistake for every loved one with a brain disease or mental issue that has family support there is at least one that does not. Probably more. Several homeless are aflicted with these issues.

    Persons with Alzheimer’s and dementia do not even realize they have a brain disease; do not realize their choices are not good ones. Cannot prepare their own meals. So, as bad as fast food is for the progression of the disease, which has no cure, it is better for the aflicted to have food and not starve. They will encounter that event soon enough when the brain stops telling them to eat.


  • Marion
    You have always been scrupulously honest in your reporting, your research and your promptness in correcting any mistakes (which we all make). Your conclusions about Yum are obvious to most objective readers and shared by those who are demanding that tax dollars be used for the common good and public health rather than to subsidize corporations. Many of those corporations are not even tax payers and are not in business to promote public health.


    Your personal attacks are inappropriate, offensive and show that you are the one who needs therapy.

  • MYoung

    I am sorry about your father – he can get his meals from Meals on wheels which will be far easier and safer than a trip to McDonalds.

    My mother loved it.

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  • I think it’s a good idea that” Yum! wants to attract low-income people with SNAP money to spend to its fast food restaurants”,but how to make this idea to move and come true? How to make the public to believe this is not a hot air? Forgive my misbehavior.I am just curious about it.

  • Catherine Luu

    While it is true that states hold the authority to implement the Restaurant Meals Program, the provision under the Food Stamp Act 2007 is a federal policy. Simply leaving the responsibility up to the states does not clear the federal government from providing states with the option to spend federal food assistance dollars on fast food.

    I agree that while a small proportion of the 6 billion federal dollars currently spent on SNAP each month goes the Restaurant Meals Program, this proportion certainly has the potential to increase substantially, especially as companies like YUM!Brands lobby states for the program’s expansion.

    With the current rate of obesity reaching epidemic proportions, this country cannot afford to support the consumption of fast food using taxpayer dollars. Allowing the fast food industry to take part in SNAP directly opposes the purpose of the federal program to improve the nutrition status of low-income individuals, as outlined in “Building a Healthy America”, a profile on SNAP published by the USDA. Please see link below.