Food Stamps for Fast Foods: Prescription for Disaster
By Susan Levin, M.S., R.D.
Fast-food corporations have set their sights on a lucrative target: America’s growing number of food stamp users. There are a record 45 million of them this year, with almost $65 billion to spend on food. Little surprise that Yum! Brands, the fast-food behemoth that owns KFC, Taco Bell, and Pizza Hut, is lobbying for a piece of this pie.
Recent federal lobbying disclosures show Yum! has been trying to persuade Congress to allow certain segments of the population, like the elderly, disabled, and homeless, to use food stamps at fast-food restaurants—a proposal similar to one the company has been pushing in its home state, Kentucky.
But as a dietitian, I’m concerned by this plan. Given the lack of healthy options at fast-food restaurants, such a measure could create a health catastrophe among the neediest Americans and increase the nation’s medical costs.
Yum! is spinning this as a common-sense measure: a convenient option for the elderly, disabled, and homeless people who cannot cook for themselves. But the foods sold by fast-food eateries often contain alarmingly high levels of saturated fat, cholesterol, sodium, and sugar, which contribute to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and many types of cancer. Such foods can be particularly insidious to those trapped in a sedentary lifestyle.
Rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes are already significantly higher in low-income areas. Elderly and disabled recipients of food stamps—formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP)—are particularly likely to suffer hypertension, heart disease, and other health problems that make them vulnerable to the effects of high cholesterol.
Our organization recently analyzed fast foods available to consumers in Arizona, California, and Michigan—states that already allow the use of food stamps for fast food—and found an appalling lack of healthy options.
What was available? Foods like Pizza Hut’s PANormous Personal Pizza, with more than double the sodium most Americans should eat in a single day; KFC’s Chicken Pot Pie, with more saturated fat than you can find in 20 of the chain’s drumsticks; and McDonald’s Big Breakfast with Hotcakes, with more than twice the daily recommended limit for cholesterol.
SNAP is already riddled with problems. It has become a perk for food manufacturers who find that it supports a growing market for candy, soda, fatty cheese, and processed meats as much as it does for healthful vegetables, fruits, grains, and beans. The way SNAP is now configured, it perpetuates food deserts—geographic areas with inadequate availability of healthful foods.
But there is no shortage of fast-food restaurants peddling their unhealthy wares: There are five fast-food eateries for every supermarket in the United States. Allowing the use of food stamps for fast food would only exacerbate food deserts in low-income areas.
As Congress prepares to take up the federal Farm Bill, lawmakers need to find ways to reconfigure SNAP so that recipients have easier access to healthy food options—not unhealthy fast food.
Some states are showing the way. A Massachusetts pilot program provides incentives for fruits and vegetable purchases. For every dollar spent on these foods, 30 cents is added to the customer’s SNAP benefits. Other states, like New York and Minnesota, allow food stamp users to shop at farmer’s markets.
Yum! Brands has spent more than $600,000 this year lobbying Washington on issues, including SNAP. But as lawmakers work on the Farm Bill, they should keep an eye on who SNAP is really intended to serve: Americans with very little means. Food stamps should not become a program for wealthy fast-food corporations looking to enrich themselves at the expense of our poorest citizens.
Susan Levin, M.S., R.D., is director of nutrition education with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.