If special interests get their way, food stamps will soon be a common form of payment at Kentucky Fried Chicken, Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, Burger King and other fast-food chains. The driving force behind this effort to convince Congress to allow food stamps at fast-food and restaurant chains is — surprise, surprise — the fast-food and restaurant chain industry.
Newspaper articles have recently reported that Yum! Brands — whose restaurants include Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s and Pizza Hut — is spearheading the campaign to grab a piece of the food stamp pie and the billions of dollars in public funds that go with it.
With upwards of 40 to 45 million people receiving food stamps — now known as SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — the restaurant industry’s aggressive advocacy campaign is showing up in big numbers in federal lobbying reports.
This is yet one more attempt by a private for-profit industry to grab taxpayer dollars to add to their already healthy bottom lines. It’s also an issue where the labels “conservative” or “liberal” are rendered irrelevant and misleading, with traditionally conservative business groups pushing the argument that not allowing food stamps in fast-food and restaurant chains is a form of discrimination against the poor.
Some anti-hunger activist groups agree and are joining the push to expand the use of food stamps in fast-food chains and restaurants.
On the other hand, some traditionally liberal groups oppose the expansion, arguing that allowing food stamps to be used for fast food will contribute to the growing obesity crisis for children and increase the rate of obesity in low-income households, already much higher than the national average.
Some also argue, correctly, in my opinion, that it would reduce the purchasing power of food-stamp benefits, leading to pressure to increase the cost of benefits in the future, with the bulk of the increase going to the fast-food industry at taxpayers’ expense.
The National Restaurant Association is lobbying for the fast food inclusion, and the National Association of Convenience Stores is lobbying against it.
It’s ironic, isn’t it, that anyone could seriously argue that a social safety-net program with the word “nutrition” in its title should ever apply to the notoriously unhealthy and non-nutritional fast-food industry? Ironic, too, that food stamps can’t be used to purchase vitamin supplements such as Vitamin C, but soon may be used for Double Whoppers and Double Doubles.
The American public has consistently supported a social contract that ensures that people living in this country will not go without food because they live in poverty and that children in the U.S. should not have to go to sleep at night with stomachs bloated and churning from lack of food. The intent was clear — everyone in the U.S. should have the sufficient means to buy food that sustains their health and meets minimum nutritional requirements.
But over time, special interests have chipped away at the intent of that social contract, lobbying to include their products in the allowable use of food stamps. Their lobbying efforts have been successful so far, with sugary sodas and junk foods now considered “nutritional assistance.”
A Web search of the state of California’s food-stamp program —called CalFresh, “fresh” being yet another word not consistent with fast food — lists 50 vendors in Lompoc that accept food stamps, including several liquor stores. (Food stamps cannot be used to purchase cigarettes or alcoholic products, one battle those special interests haven’t yet won.)
If the lobbying to include restaurant and fast-food chains as acceptable uses for food stamps is successful, it will be one more example of the increasing tendency of so many so-called fiscally conservative elected officials to throw public money at private, for-profit industries — sort of a “Welfare for Wendy’s.”
What gets lost in the lobbying efforts and well-financed campaigns to grab an ever-increasing share of public dollars is the very nature of the social contract the public endorses: the well-being and interests of those whose incomes have not and do not keep pace with the increasing cost of food.
Kowtowing to Yum! and other fast-food chains should never be part of that social contract.