taco bellPhoto: Jaymi Heimbuch“Restaurants want a piece of food stamp pie” blared a recent USA Today headline. The article focused on lobbying by fast food restaurants, particularly Yum! Brands, the parent company of Taco Bell and KFC, which is enthusiastic about feeding food stamp recipients its market-tested concoctions. It caused a stir on Twitter and even got Gothamist’s snark-filled attention.

The prospect that the food scientists who came up with the gut-busting Double Down sandwich would start a relentless marketing campaign aimed at low-income consumers in an era of rising obesity is alarming. Indeed, Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, called the idea of Yum! restaurants participating in the program “preposterous.”

I was surprised to hear of this lobbying campaign; I had understood that food stamps could not be used at restaurants — and that recipients are barred from using their benefit to purchase prepared foods. But USA Today indicated that several states, including California, Michigan, and Arizona, currently allow such purchases; Rhode Island just started a pilot program limited to a handful of Subway restaurants, while Florida allows it in a single county.

One thing that struck me in particular was the vehement defense of these state programs by anti-hunger advocates:

“They think going hungry is better?” counters Edward Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center. “I’m solidly behind what Yum! is doing.”

It seems the ongoing battle between food reformers, nutritionists, and anti-hunger advocates is just getting worse. But it’s one thing that the USDA didn’t allow New York City to experiment with restricting soda sales for food stamps — due to heavy opposition from another group of anti-hunger advocates. Now they’re going to open the food stamps floodgates to fast food?

Not exactly. In fact, not at all. In actuality, what’s at issue is, as USA Today admits, “a provision dating to the 1970s” that “allows states to allow restaurants to serve disabled, elderly and homeless people.” It’s this program, which has been implemented in only a few states, that the restaurants are clamoring to join.

The article confuses things by reporting the big increase in businesses that accept food stamps and the fact that food stamps have gone from $28.5 billion to $64.7 billion over the same period. This is not the piece of action restaurants are going for — the vast majority of businesses that have entered the program recently sell groceries, not prepared foods. So what exactly is all this about? Is USDA poised to expand the program? Change eligibility for it? Something? Anything?

A USDA spokesperson reached out to me by email hoping to clarify things. He stressed that nothing has changed; only the elderly, disabled, and homeless in the participating states can use their benefit at restaurants, though it’s true that any state has the right to implement this option. The provision is designed to help people for whom shopping and cooking are difficult or impossible. And it would take an act of Congress to widen food stamps access to restaurants generally, so it’s not entirely clear exactly who Yum! Foods is lobbying and exactly what it is they’re asking for.

Indeed, actual food stamp usage at restaurants in participating states remains tiny. According to figures supplied by the USDA, only 0.21 percent of the participating states’ food stamps dollars are spent at restaurants — and, given that this option has been available for decades, that’s not a very impressive number.

I admit that I find the overall situation a bit of a Hobson’s Choice. I’m not crazy about the idea of expanding access to highly processed fast food to the elderly, disabled, or homeless poor. In many poor neighborhoods, however, fast food is the only restaurant game in town. That’s the fundamental problem, of course. And I don’t know that I’m prepared to condemn the idea of more states offering this option without a real plan in place to feed the most vulnerable, least capable Americans. Anti-hunger advocate Cooney’s outraged question above is worth a carefully considered answer.

That said, it’s worth keeping an eye on what Yum! Brands is up to — even if it’s just to spread this existing program to other states. After all, 8 percent of food stamp recipients are elderly, while 21 percent of food stamps households have a disabled family member — so this could start to add up. It’s also true that given what appears to be our waning commitment to a social safety net, more and more elderly could fall into poverty and onto food stamps.

Certainly, the USDA isn’t perfect when it comes to addressing food deserts — and they rely far too much on the kindness of the industrial food system to address hunger. But I think USA Today may have sensationalized a complex issue. And can we really blame the USDA for trying to thread such a fine needle?