Health advocates are happy about this week’s USDA refusal to allow Yum! Brands restaurants to accept food stamps (technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP) in four eastern U.S. states, and I agree with them.
Nutritionally speaking, fast-food such as that sold by KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell is not the best food for anyone, so let’s not sanction its consumption with government money.
What I don’t agree with is USDA’s baseless and unrealistic rationale to deny Yum’s request.
“For us to be indifferent to the quality of the food is just a serious mistake,” Kevin Concannon, Under Secretary for Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, told Bloomberg Businessweek. “We should promote access to healthy foods.”
Yes, you should, but you don’t, either because you lack the ability to control it or don’t have the will to do it. (Or you indulge in capricious application of the law since some states now allow it.)
And you know you do a poor job promoting access to healthful foods because the data about what food stamp users are buying is available by the boatload—and it’s generally not healthful foods!
So if those foods aren’t the best, why deny Yum the chance to get in on the game?
One problem is a SNAP regulations stipulate food stamp users can’t purchase prepared, hot foods, which is what fast-food is.
The logic is understandable but unrealistic. While Uncle Sam hopes this rule will force users to buy raw ingredients and prepare healthful meals themselves (and anyone knows you can take the best of whole foods and make them wholly unhealthful) how many food stamp users do it?
And get this: Other blacklisted hot foods include fully prepared lunch counter or deli items that are ready to eat.
Why? Because those items cost a bit more than foods that require some preparation. OK, I understand the price argument.
But how stupid it this? You can use food stamps to buy a preservative-laden, highly processed frozen pizza on one side of the store, but not a freshly roasted chicken on the other side.
“There have been so many gray lines drawn on this one,” began James Neumann, co-owner of five-unit ValuMarket. “You can buy all the sliced meats you want in the deli, but you can’t order a party tray of deli meats. You can buy fried chicken that’s in the case cold, but you can’t call up and order hot fried chicken. Once it becomes a counter service item, it’s no longer food stamp eligible.”
Yet this doesn’t block Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza from accepting food stamps or phone orders. Since its pizzas are not baked and ready to eat, they’re not considered a hot food. (I’m no nutritionist, but it’s clear to my amateur eye that little on Papa Murphy’s menu qualifies as healthful.)
“Papa Murphy’s is the best example I’ve seen of the quasi-acceptable-restaurant rule,” said Neumann. “Same at our stores: You can get an assembled pizza at the deli on food stamps. But if you want to buy it hot, you can’t.”
Interestingly, Neumann is sympathetic toward the dual though arguably opposite causes of USDA and Yum.
“The spirit of what the government is trying to do is get people to buy raw ingredients and cook at home; that’s also the best spend,” he said. “And Yum making the case that it was providing meal opportunities for homeless people, the elderly or those who can’t cook for themselves is a good one—if that was their true motivation.”
So here are the unavoidable facts:
- The government provides food stamps to the poor, homeless and disabled who can’t afford to feed themselves.
- Despite its attempt to steer those recipients toward healthful foods, retailers will tell you it’s not happening as a general rule.
- Short of establishing food stamp stores, where only healthful foods are stocked and where only food stamp recipients can shop, the government clearly has little control over this subsidy.
- The government’s application of the rules is capricious because while it denied Yum the ability to do this in Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Florida and Ohio, it’s allowed in California, Arizona, Michigan, Rhode Island—and Florida, you’re disabled, elderly, can’t cook for yourself or homeless.
Neumann added, “Even if Yum’s intentions were good, I’m still not comfortable with opening that Pandora’s box,” and I agree with him. Simply saying, “Let ‘em eat pizza!” is not the solution.
But for the USDA to deny Yum entry to the game based on nutritional requirements is ludicrous. If nutrition were the issue, rules would be clearer and better enforced, and food stamp users could only buy from food stamp stores where foods were healthful.
And we all know that ain’t happening anytime soon.