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Fresno County supervisors OK fast food buys for some 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 will start a new program to allow some recipients of “food stamp” electronic benefit transfer cards to buy fast food.

The 3-2 vote limits the number of recipients to less than 10 percent of the county’s 228,609 CalFresh recipients.

Those who are eligible – 19,616 recipients – would include the homeless, disabled and elderly, many of whom are unable to prepare meals or don’t have a place to store groceries.

Supervisors Brian Pacheco, Henry R. Perea and Buddy Mendes supported the plan. Supervisors Debbie Poochigian and Andreas Borgeas opposed it.

The program is for residents who live in hotels where they have limited access to cooking facilities or others who are homeless or disabled and can’t cook meals or store food in a refrigerator to eat later, said Delfino Niera, Department of Social Services director.

He said many people getting CalFresh benefits are working poor.

Niera said a restaurant will apply with the state to participate in the program. Department officials say it may take several months before the program gets underway.

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

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

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

In 2011, supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose the fast-food program.

Poochigian was opposed to it in 2011, too. She said residents can maximize their money by going to a grocery store.

“It’s not healthy and it’s a lot more expensive,” she said, referring to fast food.

Borgeas said the county should examine how the program works in other communities before making a decision.

The proposal was brought to the board by Mendes and Perea.

Mendes said if the program doesn’t work as envisioned, the county could end it.

Perea recently toured a homeless shelter where tents were set up and found many people who work but don’t have a permanent place to live.

“There aren’t facilities for cooking in a tent,” he said.

He said panhandlers complain that they don’t have refrigerators or stoves to make hot meals, which is why they beg on the streets. The program also allows money to flow to more businesses, he said.

“This gives them the opportunity to get off that corner, and they can now use the card to eat somewhere,” he said. “It’s just a win all the way around.”

Pacheco said that approved restaurants should be those deemed to have the healthiest food, such as Subway sandwich outlets. Franchisees from Subway brought the program to Pacheco’s attention.

“The bottom line is, these people have to eat,” he said.

Though Pacheco agreed with Poochigian that people can maximize benefit money by shopping at a grocery store, the savings are pointless if they don’t have a refrigerator. He said the new program is an opportunity to try something different to get people fed.

“It will  provide them some dignity as well, as they try to feed themselves every day,” he said. “Many of us up here and many of us in the audience don’t have to deal with (that) every day.”

Marc Benjamin: 559-441-6166, @beebenjamin

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