by Marion Nestle
Sep 13 2011

It’s OK to use food stamps to buy fast food? Better check for conflicts of interest

Readers Robyn and Will sent me a link to an ABC News story about Yum! Brands efforts to get more states to authorize the use of food stamp (SNAP) benefits in fast food restaurants.

Michigan, California, Arizona, and Florida already do this.  Yum!, the parent company of KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, wants it to go national.

They write:

We believe that food stamps should be used to buy nutritious food for kids and families, not junk food! This nonsense has to stop!  This is a government program–it should not be a means for corporations to sell products that will eventually lead to ever-increasing health problems–obesity, heart issues, diabetes, etc. What can we do to be heard?

USA Today did a story on this last week.  It elicited more than 1,000 comments.  I’m not surprised.

The issue thoroughly divides the food advocacy community.   Public health and anti-hunger advocates sharply disagree on this issue, as they do on the question of whether sodas should be taxed.

USA Today quoted Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s anti-obesity Rudd Center:

It’s preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition.

But then the article quoted Ed Cooney, executive director of the Congressional Hunger Center and a long-time anti-hunger advocate:

They think going hungry is better?…I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.

Of course he is.  Want to take a guess at who funds the Congressional Hunger Center?

Yum! is listed as a “Sower,” meaning that its annual gift is in the range of $10,000.   I’m guessing Yum! is delighted that it is getting such good value at such low cost.

USA Today was negligent in not mentioning Mr. Cooney’s financial ties to Yum! and other food brands.  Such ties matter, and readers deserve to know about them.

But Mr. Cooney’s argument worries me on grounds beyond the evident conflict of interest.

For one thing, it smacks of elitism.  “Let them eat junk food” argues that it’s OK for the poor to eat unhealthfully.  I think the poor deserve to be treated better.

For another, promoting use of SNAP benefits for fast food and sodas makes it and other food assistance programs vulnerable to attack.

Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.

Anti-hunger and public health advocates need to work a lot harder to find common ground if they want food assistance programs to continue to help low-income Americans.

Let’s be clear about what’s at stake here.  SNAP is an entitlement program, meaning that anyone who qualifies can get benefits.

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.  Yum!’s interest in getting some of that money is understandable.

If you think low-income Americans deserve better:

  • Complain to Congress for permitting the legal loophole that allows this.
  • Insist to USDA that SNAP benefits be permitted only for real food.
  • Get your city to recruit farmers’ markets, grocery stores, and other sources of healthy food to low-income areas.
  • Let your congressional representatives know that you want a safety net for people who are out of work that enables people to eat healthfully.
  •  And tell the Congressional Hunger Center and similarly inclined anti-hunger groups that you think conflicts of interest interfere with their ability to help the clients they are supposedly trying to serve.
  • Felix if there were a hurricane SNAP would withhold payment and reimburse the food stamp recipients.

  • Payment according to B has to be in installments because of the large sum required

  • Restaurants should be allowed to sell food via the food stamp program.

  • “SNAP is a needs-based Program; because SNAP clients have limited means and resources, they can neither afford nor risk payment for an entire growing season at the season’s start. For this reason, if an authorized direct marketing farmer or producer, or a for-profit venture, elects to do business via a CSA, payment must be accepted as product is delivered (i.e. at the point-of sale rather than at the start of the season). Furthermore, SNAP benefits may not be used to pay any administrative or membership fees associated with operating a CSA. If a non-profit food buying cooperative is authorized and elects to operate a CSA, then payment may be accepted up to 14 days in advance of product delivery.”

  • Top of the day to you.

    While the Food Stamp program today is a state by state issue it may be time to change some of the basic rules allowing them to be used at restaurants. Today, recipients can buy potato chips, candy, soda pop, flavored and bottled water, doughnuts and cake & ice cream at grocery stores. But they can not by a double burger for $1.00 at McDonalds. It simply does not seem right. Many on the program are time starved and working to minimum wage jobs and many more in Texas are working 2 sub-minimum wage jobs.

    Your voice is and can be important as a voice of food equality in america. I urge you to continue to view and review this subject.


  • “Rates of obesity are higher among low-income groups, including SNAP recipients, than in the general population.”
    Somehow this statement seems at odds with anti-hunger and public health advocates on another level. How is one both hungry and obese?

    I think low-income Americans deserve better.
    They deserve the dignity that comes with the high-calorie work required to raise one’s own food. As a reformed senior executive with Papa John’s, Dunkin’ Donuts and Baskin-Robbins, I recognize the duplicity in this argument. It’s the same one that has destroyed trust of large corporations. It is one of the many reasons I retired to build a community of self-sufficient people in one of America’s poorest counties.
    For those without land who want to raise food, I offer free access to some of my 750 acres. My wife and I try to set an example of hope by raising and canning our own food. The knowledge that one can thrive without government assistance on one’s own labors is the confident, good life that people poor and wealthy need and deserve.

  • Erik Talkin

    Food stamps or SNAP is now called CalFresh in California. The name keeps being changed, possibly to confuse people who might want to cancel the program, or possibly to show that the name is healthy, even if the food people may be purchasing it with is not.

    I’m ED of the Foodbank of Santa Barbara County (one of the more food insecure counties in California – so don’t believe the soap opera) and we use food stamps as a vital tool in trying to bring long-term change to the nutritional health of the county.

    We are very focused on pairing the food we distribute with cooking and food literacy training. Yet it is pointless getting people excited about eating more healthily if they have no extra money in their budgets to buy any decent food. Hence food stamps can become a vital final stage of this educational and empowerment process. We also help people get signed up for food stamps and because it is such a long and onerous process (if only getting a junk mortgage had been this hard) we have the time with clients to establish relationships teach food literacy, so people want to spend the money on food that will make their families healthy.

    The other key element is that when families are signed up, we take them on tours of farmer’s markets and show them how they can spend their benefits there. We also train people through our ‘Grow Your Own Way’ program to grow more of their own food – and yes, you can buy seeds with food stamp money, which allows people to invest in their own future nutritional health.

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  • Lord Hint

    I don’t know about other states, but in California only the disabled, the elderly, or the homeless can use SNAP in restaurants. The reasoning should be obvious, but essentially it is done because these groups are the least likely to be able to prepare a warm meal with ingredients purchased at a store. It is a good idea and not one that needs half-informed bashing.

  • SNAP and LINK food stamps program needs a complete overhaul–no junk food should be allowed to be purchased with the assistance–you have to blame the US government for this abouse because nothing is done to stop it – maybe Michelle OBama with her big thing now on nutrition should focus more on SNAP-FOOD STAMP reform

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