Meal program buys hot food

SAN FRANCISCO – A sign in the window of the Carl’s Jr. at U.N. Plaza in San Francisco reads, “We gladly accept EBT.”

For thousands of elderly and homeless people in the city who are unable to prepare food for themselves, that sign means they can buy a hamburger, fries or anything else on the menu with the electronic cards that have replaced food stamps.

Until now, poor families who received a monthly federal government subsidy for groceries were only allowed to redeem their food stamps for cold and unprepared food. But San Francisco’s restaurant meals program, the only one of its kind so far in California, is an indication of the changes under way in the nation’s 40-year-old food-stamp program.

The program officially went completely electronic nationwide last week when California became the last state to complete the transition from paper stamps designed in the 1960s to Electronic Benefits Transfer cards that look and work like bank cards. In switching to the electronic cards, many states have also begun to look at ways to make it easier for food stamp recipients to use their benefits. Nineteen states have instituted some form of restaurant program for elderly, disabled and homeless people who are unable to store food or cook for themselves. Recipients who are able to cook are still restricted to buying cold food.

Using San Francisco’s program as an example, the state government in May approved regulations that would let all California counties start restaurant meal programs for some food stamp users.

Advocates for food stamp recipients praise the new developments. But they also say they want to make sure the program does not end up funneling food-stamp users to chain and fast-food restaurants. In San Francisco, where 19 restaurants are participating in the program, most are Subway sandwich stores or Carl’s Jr. franchises.

“We’d hope you’d be able to get culturally appropriate foods,” said George Manalo-LeClair, legislative director at California Food Policy Advocates. “There are some misconceptions that food stamp recipients are buying junk food. If people did see food stamps being redeemed at fast-food stores, it would fuel that myth.”

Leo O’Farrell, who runs San Francisco’s food-stamp programs, said the county reached out to chain restaurants in part to reassure small neighborhood restaurants that they would not be the only ones serving food-stamp recipients. And for homeless people, places like Carl’s Jr. work well, he said.

“I think the thing was: Here’s a low-cost meal,” he said. “It’s a hot meal, and you can fill your belly.”

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