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Food stamps for fast food in Rhode Island

 Spare Change News - USA 14 November 2019

Some 30,000 low-income households on food stamps in America's Rhode Island may now buy prepared restaurant meals at Subway fast food restaurants. The controversial plan aims to help people who qualify for food stamps but, lacking access to a regular kitchen, fail to make use of them. (835 Words) - By Robert Sondak

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Food stamps can be used at Subway restaurants in Rhode Island. Photo: Pat Pilon/flickr.com (Creative Commons)

The Rhode Island Food Access Project will provide healthy food options for the homeless, disabled and elderly who cannot cook for themselves or store food where they live. Rhode Island is the first New England state to allow food stamp use at restaurants.

Beginning in the 1970s, the federal government gave the states the option of allowing the elderly and disabled to spend their food stamp allocation in restaurants rather than solely at grocery stores.  In 1990, the government also extended the same privilege to homeless people with no access to kitchens.

But the use of food stamps in restaurants did not catch on until states began converting the stamps to electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards. So far, California, Arizona, Michigan, Florida and Kentucky allow EBT meal purchases at state-approved restaurants.

This Rhode Island pilot started in September at five Subway restaurants located in Providence. The small size of this program allows for quick statistical gathering and can help to serve as a role model for new programs or for the expansion of current programs.

"A group of activists and myself went to work to get Subway to participate in this program," said Kathleen Gorman, director of the Feinstein Center for a Hunger Free America. "Our State Department of Human Services was not a fan of the original program, but we got them to sign on."

Gorman pointed out that the program is small, with only five restaurants that have signed on. One weakness of the program is the fact that people living outside of Providence will have to travel to use their EBT cards for restaurant food.

"Half of these households live within greater Providence," Gorman said. "Even though the program is small, we have a good population base to work with."

Subway was selected because of its healthier food options. Subway's sandwiches offer reduced sodium and saturated fat, and consumers can personalize meal combinations to include yogurt, fresh vegetables, water, milk and diet soda.

"We want to provide healthier food options for people who cannot cook," Gorman said. "We want it to be more than Subway, in the future, and include other local diners and restaurants."

Pat Baker, senior advocate from the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, pointed out that the Rhode Island food stamp meals program is controversial.

"Massachusetts officials are concerned about food cost," Baker said. "Officials have expressed concern over how much can be charged per meal."

Aaron Lavallee, from the USDA Office of Communications, was interviewed by the Pew Center on the States' Stateline news service. He highlighted the strengths and weaknesses of the food stamp restaurant meals program.

Lavallee pointed out that the program's overall goal is to help improve the level of nutrition for low-income people. This restaurant meals program will help those who may not be able to cook for themselves or don't have a place to cook. Otherwise, these people would have few means for using food stamps. So far, the overall number of people participating in such programs is small. In other words, not everyone who has food stamps may choose to participate in the food stamp restaurant meals program. Lavallee mentioned that the Rhode Island program is limited to 33,000 households. This represents only 20 percent of the nearly 165,000 SNAP (food stamp) program clients.

Lavallee stated that the USDA has clear food regulations. Food stamps can be used only for foods for households to eat. These foods include bread, fruit, meat and dairy products. Alcohol, cigarettes and household supplies do not qualify. One reason that the program has raised controversy is because it will allow SNAP clients, many of whom collect welfare, to buy fast food with their food stamps.

Jessica Bartholow, an advocate with the Western Center for Law and Poverty in Sacramento, was interviewed by the Stateline news service.  In her opinion, the food stamp restaurant meals program concerns are overblown, and a meal at a fast food restaurant is better than no meal. She also noted that many fast food restaurants such as Subway, and more recently, McDonald's, now offer healthy choices.

Bartholow stated that the recent controversy about the California program has changed because of the focus on healthy meal choices. California's program is the nation's largest, and now some 53 counties in California that were not participating are reconsidering joining.

Frederick Sneesby, communications officer for the R.I. Department of Human Services, was also interviewed by Stateline. He thinks that there is more of an upside than a downside to the Rhode Island meals program. Sneebsy stated that the homeless, elderly and disabled with limited cooking facilities need help to improve their health. The most important thing about this program is that it gives people access to restaurants with healthy food.

Robert Sondak is a Spare Change News vendor and writer. Robert has a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Massachusetts Boston, College of Public and Community Service (CPCS). Robert also minored in Urban Planning and Advocacy. Currently Robert is the Executive Director of the Nutrition Education Outreach Project.