Article from BlackVoices.com — It may come as a surprise to most that the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s federal food stamp program authorizes the use of “food stamps” at restaurants. The restaurant food stamp program, however, has been in effect since 1974 for elderly and disabled patrons, and since 1992, for homeless people. The creation of “Restaurant Meals” under the USDA’s food stamp program began with a noble mission: It’s goal was to assist the poor elderly and disabled, who were unable to cook their own meals. The benefit was then extended to the homeless, who had no access to kitchens or storage facilities, making it unfeasible to shop at grocery stores and prepare food.

The Food Stamp Restaurant Meals program is a voluntary part of the program. States decide independently whether they will participate. According to “Nation’s Restaurant News,” a news magazine dedicated to news and trends in the restaurant industry, as of 2004, almost half the country was participating in the restaurant program.

Initially, few restaurants participated in the program, but now there has been an explosion in the number of restaurants who now accept “food stamps.” This increase has been driven primarily by the program’s conversion from physical paper stamps to debit cards, often referred to as “EBT cards” or electronic benefit cards. Restaurants process EBT cards like any other debit card, and the state reimburses them generally within two days. And whereas the program was originally designed for the elderly, homeless and disabled, most states now offer the restaurant component of the program to all categories of food stamp recipients.

There has been controversy over the implementation of this program. Many critics cite the increasing number of fast food restaurants that are accepted in to the program. The L.A. County Department of Social Services counts Jack-in-the-Box, Papa John’s, Popeye’s, Subway, El Pollo Loco and Domino’s as some of its participants. Glancing at the complete list of EBT restaurants, you also see smaller stores like Louisiana Fried Chicken and Fish, Hong Kong Express and Wing Stop.

The addition of pizzas and fast food has generated criticism that the program is not offering food stamp recipients healthful choices, but Leo O’Farrell, food stamp manager for the San Francisco County Department of Human Services, disagrees.

In an interview with “Nation’s Restaurant News” in 2004, he stated, “We have to find restaurants that are low priced and in areas where homeless, disabled and elderly live,” adding, “fast food offers people more choices. They can make a decision on where to eat based on their mood.”

I have to give this whole concept the much-cliched side-eye. Although the intentions behind the original restaurant program were noble, this seems to have the potential for disaster. Since most states have offered this service to all food stamp recipients, it seems to have the potential for abuse. While it is a reasonable and logical solution that offers the elderly, homeless, disabled and families who may not have access to kitchen facilities a way to get a hot meal, can the increased government subsidization of fast food consumption in communities that are already struggling with an epidemic of obesity and related health problems really be a good idea?

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