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Fresno County supervisors will consider fast food for welfare recipients

A woman heads into the Friendly Store along Elm Avenue in west Fresno. Displayed in the doorway are a food stamp card notice and a large yellow sign declaring acceptance of EBT cards.
A woman heads into the Friendly Store along Elm Avenue in west Fresno. Displayed in the doorway are a food stamp card notice and a large yellow sign declaring acceptance of EBT cards. Fresno Bee file photo

Fresno County supervisors are being asked to back a plan they rejected five years ago that would allow the county’s lowest-income residents to use their “food stamp” electronic benefit transfer cards at participating restaurants.

Fewer than 20,000 recipients would qualify for the CalFresh Restaurant Meals Program out of 228,609 program participants, county officials say.

In 2011, supervisors opposed the program on a 3-2 vote. Only supervisors Henry R. Perea and Debbie Poochigian are still on the board. Perea supported it and Poochigian was opposed.

The issue was placed on Tuesday’s agenda by board Chairman Buddy Mendes and Perea.

Perea said the idea was brought to supervisors from the business community.

The program targets the disabled, homeless and elderly, those least able to make their own meals.

“It’s another opportunity for a consumer,” Perea said. “We are hoping people are always going to make the right choices, and this will give them another way to feed themselves and their families.”

The program also will help small businesses, he said.

Food stamps – a subsidy provided electronically through debit-style cards for low-income people buying food – are accepted only at certain stores and farmers markets.

CalFresh recipients get an average of $141 in benefits, which are funded by the state and federal governments. No county dollars are used in the program.

Supervisors say they recently were approached by restaurant owners who say they have had people try to pay with electronic benefit transfer cards, only to learn they couldn’t buy the food because Fresno County doesn’t participate in the program.

Supervisor Brian Pacheco said a Subway franchise operator told him that when they run into this problem they can’t sell the food and it’s wasted.

“Subway is generally considered a healthy food choice, and healthy restaurants will be approved on a case-by-case basis,” he said. “I believe it’s a way for the county to get tax dollars back and help small family businesses.”

Mendes said he also was approached by Subway franchisees.

“I think the good outweighs the bad,” Mendes said. “Maybe people will eat poorly, but they’re going to eat.”

Supervisor Debbie Poochigian said she hasn’t changed her mind since first opposing the program five years ago. At the time, she said the program was a waste of public funds and an incentive for unhealthy eating.

“Prepared foods are much more expensive than cooking from scratch,” she said. “I didn’t think it was a good idea then and I don’t support it now.”

Restaurants wanting to participate will be required to enter into an agreement with the county.

Seven California counties participate in the program: Los Angeles, San Diego, Alameda, San Francisco, Santa Clara, Sacramento and San Luis Obispo.

In Sacramento County, for example, there are 38 locations as of last July that accept the benefits cards. The restaurants include five El Pollo Locos, eight Subways, nine Pizza Huts, 10 Taco Bells, one Quizno’s and one Burger King.

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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