When California launched the Restaurant Meals Program in 2004, advocates hailed it as a solution to feeding those who don’t have the means or ability to prepare their own meals.
But nearly 94% of participating restaurants in the state are fast-food establishments, and U.S. Department of Agriculture officials are concerned that the program may be undermining the goal of promoting healthful eating.
In a letter to the California Department of Social Services, the USDA’s western regional director, Allen Ng, said the state needs to educate food-stamp recipients about selecting healthful menu items.
“The state sets the standard for restaurants to participate, and can be selective about what restaurants are approved,” Ng wrote.
Besides L.A., only a few California counties offer the Restaurant Meals Program — among them San Francisco, Santa Clara and Sacramento. Of the 3.7 million food-stamp recipients in California, only a small percentage are eligible for the restaurant benefits. About 66,000 people used those benefits in May, the most recent month for which figures are available.
Officials at the Los Angeles County of Department of Public Social Services, which has the largest Restaurants Meals Program in the state, acknowledged that there are many fast food restaurants on their list of participants.
A Times examination of that list found that large chains such as Jack in the Box, Pizza Hut and Subway account for 83% of the vendors.
At a Downey KFC, assistant manager Sam Chavez said a drop in business partly spurred the restaurant’s recent decision to accept public assistance benefits. A large poster hangs in the windows announcing, “We welcome EBT,” referring to the food-stamp debit cards dispersed to recipients.
“Business was down everywhere, and I think this will boost our sales,” Chavez said.
He added: “I think it’s important people eat. It definitely helps out the people that don’t have the means.”
When the program was launched in 2005, L.A. County struggled to find restaurants willing to accept food-stamp benefits, known as CalFresh, said Social Services Director Philip L. Browning.
“There is a stigma about the people we serve,” he said. “There was some question about what kind of individuals are going to be coming into their restaurants.”
He said interest in the Restaurant Meals Program has increased substantially in the last two years, since the economy took a dive, and the county has capped the program at 1,200 restaurants.
Although the county can now be more selective, Browning said, excluding all fast food outlets would “destroy the program.”
“In the communities that we serve, there are not a lot of high-end restaurants that have asked or agreed to participate,” he said. “Obesity is a national problem…. We don’t want to contribute to that. But our primary goal is to get some type of a meal to people who don’t have any means to make one themselves.”
Browning said his department lacks the resources to decide whether restaurants offer enough healthful choices, and would need another agency to monitor that.
The USDA maintains that it only wants food-stamp recipients to have access to “more well-rounded meals.”
As rates of obesity and diabetes continue to rise, public health officials, legislators and food advocates have grappled with how to promote better nutrition habits, including among those receiving public assistance.
First Lady Michelle Obama has launched a campaign to combat childhood obesity. Los Angeles schools recently dropped flavored milk from their menus. And state Sen. Michael Rubio (D-East Bakersfield) is working on a bill that would prohibit recipients from using food-stamp benefits to buy sugary items like soda and cake.
While advocates support these efforts, they acknowledge that excluding fast food from the Restaurant Meals Program would make it difficult for participants to eat.
“Frankly, fast food restaurants are a part our eating environment,” said Jessica Bartholow, a legislative advocate with the Western Center on Law and Poverty. “And that is because they offer low-cost options. It’d be so awful to see people skip meals because” fast food isn’t available to them.
Spokesman Oscar Ramirez said the California Department of Social Services is working with counties and the the state health department to develop a brochure to educate food-stamp recipients about making healthful food choices.
Despite the concerns, Browning said there is only so much authorities can do.
“We can certainly put the signs up. And there are calorie counters on all the menus now. So people can make informed choices. The problem is that many of us don’t.”
Times staff writers Alexandra Zavis and Ken Schwencke contributed to this report.