(USA TODAY) - The number of businesses approved to accept food stamps grew by a third from 2005 to 2010, U.S. Department of Agriculture records show, as vendors from convenience and dollar discount stores to gas stations and pharmacies increasingly joined the growing entitlement program.
Now, restaurants, which typically have not participated in the program, are lobbying for a piece of the action.
Louisville-based Yum! Brands, whose restaurants include Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver's and Pizza Hut, is trying to get restaurants more involved, federal lobbying records show.
That's a prospect that anti-hunger advocates welcome, but one that worries some current food stamp vendors and public health advocates.
Federal rules generally prohibit food stamp benefits, which are distributed under the USDA's Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), from being exchanged for prepared foods. Yet a provision dating to the 1970s allows states to allow restaurants to serve disabled, elderly and homeless people, USDA spokeswoman Jean Daniel said.
Between 2005 and 2010, the number of businesses certified in the SNAP program went from about 156,000 to nearly 209,000, according to USDA data.
There is big money at stake. USDA records show food stamp benefits swelled from $28.5 billion to $64.7billion in that period.
Four states accept restaurants, with Florida the most recent to begin a program.
"It makes perfect sense to expand a program that's working well in California, Arizona and Michigan, enabling the homeless, elderly and disabled to purchase prepared meals with SNAP benefits in a restaurant environment," Yum! spokesman Jonathan Blum said.
The National Restaurant Association supports Yum!, said spokeswoman Katie Laning Niebaum, but the National Association of Convenience Stores does not.
"If the pie's only so big, nobody's going to want to see the pie sliced thinner," said Convenience Stores spokesman Jeff Lenard. "I'm not sure that's in the best interest of public health."
Kelly Brownell, director of Yale's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, says encouraging more fast-food consumption is not good for people's health. "It's preposterous that a company like Yum! Brands would even be considered for inclusion in a program meant for supplemental nutrition."
"They think going hungry is better?" counters Edward Cooney of the Congressional Hunger Center. "I'm solidly behind what Yum! is doing."