The Orange County Board of Supervisors doesn’t want poor people access to a nonprofit needle-exchange program, but they might just make it easier for some of them to eat at Pizza Hut. At their upcoming meeting on Tuesday, Oct. 30, the Board will vote on whether to allow homeless, disabled, and elderly CalFresh recipients to use their Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) cards at restaurants all over the county. While all county residents enrolled in CalFresh have been able to participate in the Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) for some time, only three dozen restaurants in Anaheim and Santa Ana have been involved in a pilot program county supervisors authorized back in late 2016.
Once known as “food stamps,” the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is funded by the federal government but administered by the states. Known as CalFresh here in California, the program makes it easier for low-income people and families to buy food.
“RMP is intended to increase food access for those who do not have a place to store or cook food, may not be able to prepare food or lack access to a grocery store,” states this county Social Services Agency staff report on the matter. “The County voluntarily enrolled in RMP, but no additional funds are provided for administration of this program. In addition to the pilot program in Orange County, RMP is currently operated in eight other California counties including Alameda, Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, San Luis Obispo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz.”
The SSA staff report says that, “In August 2018, the average transaction cost in Orange County was $14.41.” This makes sense, given that all 39 restaurants currently participating in the RMP are fast food franchises–Domino’s, KFC, Pizza Hut, Subway, Jack in the Box, and Lee’s Sandwiches, to be specific.
This seems completely unnecessary. Driving around the RMP-certified KFC on South Main in Santa Ana, I noticed Mary Restaurant, Mariscos Hector, and El Sahuayo Mexican Food (which offers 99-cent tacos!), all of which are just a couple blocks away. Over by the RMP-certified Pizza Hut on North Tustin Avenue, there’s Mini Café in the same strip mall and Pho Asian Grill just a block away.
SSA spokesperson Laura Turtzer said that SSA officials did reach out to independent restaurants, but fast food owners showed the most interest in the program.
“[D]uring the pilot phase of the program, SSA Restaurant Meals Program (RMP) staff reached out to independently owned restaurants in Santa Ana and Anaheim as part of their marketing efforts,” Turtzer said in an Oct. 25 email to me. “RMP staff also partnered with the Food Safety Advisory Council to educate Orange County restaurant owners about the program. The majority of interest received during this initial phase was from fast food franchise owners in the two pilot cities. Assuming the program expands countywide, we will continue to promote RMP to Orange County restaurants that provide low cost, healthy meal options.”
While it’s debatable that any of the restaurants on the RMP list offer “health meal options,” that’s fine with CalFresh. While CalFresh recipients are forbidden from using their benefits on alcohol and tobacco, there’s no such prohibition on junk food. For some food analysts, this is a bad thing.
“‘Let them eat junk food’ argues that it’s okay for the poor to eat unhealthfully,” Marion Nestle, a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, wrote in this 2011 Atlantic article. “I think the poor deserve to be treated better.”
Turtzer said that any restaurants that wish to join the RMP should go to https://cms.ocgov.com/gov/ssa/calfresh/calfresh/rmp.asp, which has information about how to join as well as an application packet. They can also email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 714-245-6013.
“In order to manage workload and assess program needs, SSA will initially cap the number of participating restaurants at 150,” states the SSA staff report. “Upon completion of processing the first 150 applications, SSA will reassess to determine if this cap could be increased should demand warrant an increase.”
The Board of Supervisors meeting will start at 9am on Tuesday, Oct. 30.