Authors: Jose Narvaez, Green For All Fellow Candidate
The other day I was biking around my neighborhood. I noticed a fast food place doing something I thought was illegal. According to federal law, you are not allowed to use food stamps to buy hot foods. However, there it was: a popular fast food place with a big sign that says‚"We Accept EBT."
I go by there a lot and this sign was probably put up in the last few weeks. I've been interested in how food is consumed in low income communities for a while now. I was on food stamps myself and when money is good, I'm vegan, eat organic, local etc. But when money and time are tight, a value meal looks mighty good.
I had to pull over and see what was going on. I asked her about the sign and how to get some fast food using EBT. She explained that a customer uses their EBT card to buy a frozen meal for 25¢ less than the regular price. Then the customer pays the remaining 25¢, in cash, to warm up the food. I was taken back by the cleverness of this model. Legally, this set-up is no different than take and bake pizzas at your local supermarket.
I'm not sure if this will catch on. However, I asked the cashier if she's been selling more since they started taking EBT. She said, "Yeah, we've been selling a lot more since we started this." Moreover, this is a national franchise. If the store's sales are high, word will get out among other franchise owners. In other words, this could become popular if a store is successful with this model. If this store does not succeed, sooner or later another franchise will try it. Not having to pay your own money for the convenience of fast food is hard to pass up.
Let's assume this catches on. What does this mean from a food justice perspective? It means the fast food industry has figured out how to further federally subsidize their revenues. These companies are responsible for one of the most costly externalities today - poor health among low-income people.
While many would say, "It's their choice to buy value meals with their EBT cards," I would argue low-income people in food deserts, often don't have choices. Fast food for food stamps might be a welcomed new option for many living in areas where a supermarket is hard to get to. But the question remains, should we provide the subsidies for unhealthy food? This product is purchased on the taxpayer dime and all too often, so are medical bills from a life time of value meals. From a public health perspective, this could be problematic.
The fast food industry already benefits from federal corn subsidies. They use these subsidies to reduce their costs to sell us cheaper food that make us sicker. Food that makes our national health care problems worse. And now, they have found a loophole to receive even more federal subsidies, at the health cost of low-income people.