Should Food Stamps Buy Fast Food?

Guest

Sherrie Tussler, executive director, Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee. Her piece, "Poor People Need Access, Dignity, Choices" ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The number of Americans relying on food stamps has jumped 70 percent since 2007. As more people join the program, there's a growing debate over whether or not recipients should be able to use food stamps at fast food restaurants.

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JOHN DONVAN, host: So Sherrie Tussler asked a provocative question in a recent op-ed, and it was this: If somebody relies in food stamps, should they be allowed to use those food stamps at fast-food restaurants? Her answer is a clear yes. She says nobody should tell us what we can eat and what we can't eat. She says it's a matter of access and choice and dignity. And Sherrie Tussler will be joining us in a moment.

But first of all, I want to ask you. If you are on food stamps or have used food stamps in the past, do you think you should be able to use them at a fast-food restaurant? Tell us why or why not. Our number is 800-989-8255. Our email address is talk@npr.org. And you can also join the conversation at our website and find a link to Sherrie Tussler's op-ed at npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

So, Sherrie Tussler, you serve as executive director of Milwaukee's Hunger Task Force. Your piece ran in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. And you're now with us - joining us from the studios at Wisconsin Public Radio in Milwaukee. Thanks for joining us, Sherrie.

SHERRIE TUSSLER: Thanks for having me on.

DONVAN: So, Sherrie, the argument about the fast-food restaurants, I think, goes like this, and we've heard it from people like Michael Pollan and Mark Bittman, who's the food columnist at The New York Times and others, who said that eating at a fast-food restaurant is not cheaper in the long run, and it's certainly not healthier than buying groceries and cooking at home. But in your piece, you say there's a lot more to the argument. What is that?

TUSSLER: Sure. The lot more to the argument, first of all, is federal regulation. It's the law. Food stamp regulation was promulgated in 1977. And under the law, people have the right under something called the (unintelligible) restaurant meal program to shop at fast-food restaurants or any restaurant for that matter as long as the state is willing to establish that opportunity. That opportunity only exists for people with disabilities, seniors and the homeless. And it only exists in five states.

DONVAN: And you said - you call this whole issue a matter of dignity. Tell us about the dignity aspect of this.

TUSSLER: Sure. If you look all over the nation, you know, you can look here in Milwaukee, there are something called food deserts. There are people who have to travel long distances to be able to find food that is affordable. Sure, there's corner stores, but those corner stores will not have affordable food and they won't have fresh or healthy food. Yes, the fast-food store is right around the corner. Someone can go to a restaurant and pick up something from the dollar menu and eat that night, and so it's convenient for some people who have to travel long distances to get their food.

DONVAN: Do you have a sense of how many people actually do - as a result of the conditions you're just describing, at least in your area, how many people actually do need to rely on fast-food restaurants? Is it a large number?

TUSSLER: It's not actually an option here in Wisconsin, and part of my piece indicated that. This option is only existing right now in California, Arizona, Michigan, Rhode Island, and it's a pilot in the state of Florida. But here in Wisconsin, we don't allow it.

DONVAN: And what's the impact of that, not allowing? What happens?

TUSSLER: Well, here in Wisconsin, we've got almost 825,000 people using the food stamp program. In Milwaukee, more than a quarter of those people live in our borders, and those people are going to struggle. They may not be able to get to a store to purchase healthy and fresh foods. And although I totally respect the - everyone's desire for people to put healthy and fresh foods on their plate, not everyone has the luxury of being able to do that.

DONVAN: You're saying the food stamp program is not the way to attack this question of people eating better quality food.

TUSSLER: Clearly not. I think, you know, we - the poor people have enough stuff riding on their backs already with all those judging them and making decisions about what they should or shouldn't eat.

DONVAN: We've asked our listeners to call in and send in emails, and we have one from a Valerie Hughes(ph), an email, who tells us that she has been on food stamps and she has also worked in the fast-food industry. And she says, I'll read this: I do not believe food stamps should be used on fast food. She says, this is meant to encourage people to spend their money wisely and promote better nutrition. It's not a question of dignity. There is no less dignity in eating at home than in eating in fast food. And it's interesting to me that she makes that argument from inside, from having been inside the experience.

TUSSLER: Sure. And, you know, I've also had the experience, but I would suggest to Valerie that maybe she has a store nearby that she can afford to shop her food at. Lots of people don't.

DONVAN: Let's take a call from Phil in Charlotte, North Carolina. Phil, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

PHIL: You know, I've worked in the fast-food industry also, but I disagree. I raised children on a - as a single dad, and I had to have food stamps. And when the children were with me or not, I'd go - on the bus, I had to get fresh vegetables, I had to make my own baby food. I had to buy generic apple juice to water down and give to them for their baby juice. I managed McDonald's when I get out Marine Corps in '79, and they used really the best ingredients, but they're not healthy and they're not prepared healthy.

DONVAN: But you sound like somebody who had the option to at least get to the store that provided that kind of food, and I think what Sherrie is saying is that not everybody has an option.

PHIL: Maybe I simplified by saying I got on the bus. There were several times if a neighbor or a friend was over, and then I'd hitchhike. I'd do whatever I had to get to the store, because I look around me and I couldn't afford to take the kid to the doctor for getting sick. And people - my neighbors on food stamps, they did the local thing and they were obese. It was disgusting and sick and scary. My children are healthy now and it was worth every minute of it. I think it's how much you care about yourself.

DONVAN: All right. Sherrie, I don't think you necessarily have an argument with his decision. But...

TUSSLER: No, absolutely not. I think it's quite laudable that he would, you know, travel distances and get help from family and friends. Again, this particular restaurant meal program provision in the food stamp laws for elderly people, people with disabilities and the homeless, these are not people who get to hop on the bus. These are not people who are all that mobile, and they need an option that is within walking distance of their home.

PHIL: And the program needs to come up with something better, because we're going to kill them by eating fast food.

DONVAN: What do you think is - Phil, what do you mean by something better? Do you have an idea?

PHIL: Meals on Wheels type situation. Doesn't have to be...

TUSSLER: Meals on wheels cost four, five dollars apiece. That's not even realistic.

PHIL: Sorry, but our country wastes so much more money on foreign bases. There's enough money to save our country. They just won't do it. That's what the 99 percent movement's all about.

DONVAN: All right, Phil...

PHIL: Everybody, the poor people are working for the rich people, so are the middle class and everybody else. There's a waste everywhere and we see it.

DONVAN: Phil, thanks for your call and...

PHIL: Great day(ph). Bye.

DONVAN: Thanks. We're going to Mike in Wapakoneta, Ohio. I'm concerned, Mike, that I have mispronounced the name of your hometown.

MIKE: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

DONVAN: Where are you located?

MIKE: I'm in Wapakoneta, Ohio.

DONVAN: Wapakoneta, okay.

MIKE: Home of Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon. Just a little plug there. I guess my question was, you know, in terms of the overall justice of the situation, I wonder if it's - since most supermarkets have delis, is it legal to take that same food stamp and go eat at the deli - as a supermarket, you know, I suspect it will be, you know, it would come up as food. And if so, then why not the choice for people on food stamps?

DONVAN: Sherrie?

TUSSLER: That is choice for people on food stamps, absolutely. Our UPP(ph) code...

MIKE: But then they don't have the choice to...

TUSSLER: ...basically says what food is.

MIKE: Yeah, yeah. And if they choose fast food, I think then that's their prerogative.

DONVAN: All right. Mike, thanks for your call. Kim in Redding, California. You're on TALK OF THE NATION.

KIM: Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I work over at the welfare department in Redding, and we have a special program where we're trying to get people to go to the farmers' market with their food stamps. But I'm looking at the homeless people who have nowhere to cook their food. And would it be better if they went to Subway and got a healthier food? Would that be OK?

DONVAN: I don't know that that's actually a question you're seriously putting or more of statement that you're making. Are you looking an answer from Sherrie?

KIM: Well, yeah, because I'm saying are people upset because, what, the Big Mac has a lot of fat or what is it that they're upset about?

TUSSLER: Yeah, I think that people get upset about the health side of things, and Subway is definitely an option. We know it's a healthy option and it is one of the restaurants that is available in four of the five states.

DONVAN: We have an email from Michelle Mayer(ph) - and thank you very much for your call. We have an email from Michelle Mayer, who says: My initial reaction to the question was heck no - and again, our question is: Should people be able to use food stamps at fast-food restaurants? She said heck no was her initial reaction. And then after some thought I realized that I myself have eaten a Happy Meal when money was tight and time was short. I realized that often our mom or dad has very limited time to prepare a meal and fast food is a good idea at times. I'm thinking that maybe item choices might be limited.

So there, Sherrie, I'm saying that maybe you've changed a mind, but what I find interesting is the overwhelming number of our calls coming in so far are on the other side of this. What do you think that's about? What does that reflect?

TUSSLER: Well, I think a lot of times we're just concerned about the health, but other times we're just interested in judging how other people should spend their money. And I think we're living in a community and a nation right now that tends to judge and isn't really thinking about providing options to people and thinking about how - there should be dignity in how people received their food and people should have choices. And ultimately each one of us should be the person who decides what goes on our plate.

DONVAN: I'm going to go to Eric(ph) in Columbus, Ohio. Eric, you're on TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIC: Hi there. Yeah, I just wanted to say I grew up on food stamps. My mom was raising a family of, you know, three kids. And if we wanted fast food or we wanted junk food or anything like that, we had to pay cash for it, so it was definitely a luxury. She wasn't going to allow us to go get fast food on food stamps. And I've been working since I was 14, and I'm putting back into the community, put back into the programs. And I think that the government should have a say on what people on food stamps get to eat. I don't think it should just be a free-for-all where you get to eat what you want to eat. It's not healthy. I agree with Phil on that. It's not healthy.

DONVAN: All right. Thanks very much, Eric, for your call. Sherrie, when a shopper with food stamps goes into grocery stores, there are limitations on the kinds of foods, the categories of foods that can be purchased with food stamps. Are there not?

TUSSLER: They can only purchase food, and that's one of the challenges, is a lot of times we'll see somebody in the grocery store line picking out unhealthy foods, and it makes us angry. We're thinking about our tax dollars. We're thinking that we're subsidizing that person, and we're judging them for choosing foods that are unhealthy. They can't buy alcohol, cleaning products, tobacco products, but they can buy food.

And when people sit back and think about the food industry and how we would like to think of, for instance, Cheetos or soda as food, what we should really be questioning is not which person is putting that in which grocery cart so much as why the, I guess, food producers of our nation think that it's OK to call that food.

DONVAN: We're speaking with Sherrie Tussler. She is the executive director of the Hunger Task Force of Milwaukee. We're talking about the use of food stamps in fast food restaurants. Yes or no?

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Sherrie, you've used the word dignity in your op-ed about this and mentioned it a few times here, but I want to get more to the core of what you're talking about, what do you mean by that, and again, given the rush of calls of listeners who disagree with you, to make another run at the dignity argument and tell us why that matters.

TUSSLER: It matters because each of us has the right to choose what we eat. And dignity is affirmed when we choose those items rather than we're given those items. Beggars can be choosy. All of us should choose healthy food, but at the same time all of us should first choose to eat before we go without.

DONVAN: I mean, the program has been adjusted over time through technology in order to address part of that dignity issue, where it's not literally little slips of paper any longer but a swipe-able card. And so the fact that somebody's using food stamps is not necessarily going to be obvious to the people in the back of the line. Was that a dignity issue? Was that found to be - was that done to make people feel better about the process of using them? Or was there some other practical business reason involved in that?

TUSSLER: The practical business reason was to reduce fraud, and the elimination of the coupons reduced the fraud. Your coupons could be stolen. They could be transferred. Your debit card can only be used by you with a specific pin. And so although the debit card brought dignity in a lot of people in the advocacy community - we're really excited about that - it wasn't really intended for that purpose.

DONVAN: Let's go to Union City, California, and we're speaking with Ashley(ph) on TALK OF THE NATION.

ASHLEY: Hi there. Thanks for having this conversation. I'm a father of two daughters, one's four and one's two. I'm currently on food stamps. I'm college educated, and I've gone in and out of careers where I've made substantial money. I was a mortgage broker. But right now I'm on food stamps.

My statement is three-part, basically. Number one, I think, we need to separate between disabled people and elderly who don't have the ability to take care of themselves. I think that should be a separate conversation. The second part of it is that in California, I get the bulk of my money, $500 is only spendable at a grocery store. I get a supplement, or cash aid, which I can choose to use at a Kentucky Fried Chicken. But the bulk of my money goes to the food, so that's just how it is here.

My opinion on the matter is that food stamps and welfare is not meant to be a lifetime thing. This is - I'm in transition now. In four months I'll be off because I'm working again. So this is supposed to get people up and moving and away. It's not supposed to be comfortable so we can all go eat a Happy Meal. So my basic opinion is, you know, my dad, he was so poor he ate (unintelligible) sandwiches in Lafayette(ph), Indiana . They were too poor to go on food stamps back then.

I'm not too proud to do it, but what I will say is I don't believe in subsidizing a billion dollar fast food industry and making our people obese when over 50 percent of Americans are going to be that way with government money for year in and year out. I just think that's absurd.

DONVAN: So, Ashley, even as somebody...

ASHLEY: Actually, on $20, it's not even cheaper.

DONVAN: Ashley, let me just interrupt you for a second. Even if somebody then who has used the program, you do feel that the program should be able to tell you where you can eat and where you can't.

ASHLEY: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I'll tell you why. I mean, unless they're telling me I have to eat at fast food. As long as the default that they're telling you is you get what's natural, what's original, what (unintelligible)...

DONVAN: What about what Sherrie is - just a second. What about - I admire your passion. But what about what Sherrie is talking about communities where the store is just not there, you can't get to it?

ASHLEY: I think that - well, first of all, you know, everyone's heard of the story about their parents walking uphill both ways in the snow. We heard an earlier caller do that. Her answer to that was some people are disabled or are unable, blah, blah, blah. Like I said, there needs to be a separation between people who are disabled, you know, and people who are able-bodied. If you're able-bodied and you're feeding yourself and your children, you go to any lengths necessary. That means you got to work two-hour - two shifts, whatever you got to do, man. You got to take the bus. You got to walk it. You know, there are people who don't have this all over the world.

DONVAN: All right. All right. Ashley, thank you for your call.

ASHLEY: So I'm blessed. I'm blessed I'm in a country where this is an opportunity. I went from making $200,000 a year in 2005. I'm 31 years old. I'm on food stamps.

DONVAN: Ashley, I got to cut you off, and thank you for your call. Sherrie, would you like to respond to that rather strongly argued point of view?

TUSSLER: Well, I just think it's important to recognize that he's from a state that allows the program, and 45 of the 50 states don't allow the program. Where the program is allowed, again, it's allowed for the homeless, people with disabilities and seniors.

DONVAN: OK. I think we have time for one more call. Oh, I'm sorry. We don't. In fact, I have to thank you very much for joining us.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

TUSSLER: Too bad.

DONVAN: And it was a little bit one-sided, but that's what happens when you get controversial. Sherrie Tussler is the executive director of the Hunger Task Force in Milwaukee. You can read her piece, "Yes: People Need Access." Go to npr.org, and click on TALK OF THE NATION. She joined us from Wisconsin Public Radio in Milwaukee.

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