Debate goes on over food stamp use in restaurants

Nearly 900,000 Hoosiers use EBT cards for assistance.

INDIANAPOLIS - There is a push across Indiana to allow fast food to be purchased with food stamps. But nutrition experts say it's a bad idea.

The nearly 900,000 Hoosier food stamp recipients are currently limited as to what they can buy. Approved items include breads, fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products. Alcohol, tobacco, household supplies, prepared and hot foods are not permitted.

"We encourage people to make good choices about the kind of food they are going to be purchasing with food stamps," said FSSA spokesman Neil Moore.

But four states have opened the door for EBT cards - or food stamps - to be used at restaurants. Under the provision, only the elderly, the homeless and disabled EBT users can spend their monthly allotment at restaurants, but Louisville-based Yum! Brands, which operates chains including KFC and Taco Bell, want to expand that into other states.

John Whitaker with Midwest Food Bank says this is better than people going hungry.

"While we prefer healthy food, which is what we strive for here at the food bank, we need to get some protein in someone's mouth," he said.

IU Health nutritionist Lorna Kirsch says allowing food stamps in restaurants will only increase obesity rates and, in turn, up healthcare costs.

"I think encouraging more individuals to eat that food, which will happen with food stamp usage in those areas, would not be a wise move," Kirsch said.

Because pizza is not baked in the store, Papa Murphy's accepts EBT and, they say, at a striking rate. At one south side store, it equates to 20 percent of their business.

"It's a little bit busier at the beginning of the month and, with the economy, we've seen an increase of people taking advantage of that," said Todd Gritten at Papa Murphy's.

Pogue's Run Grocer opened up in an area where, in the past, the only place people had options were at gas stations.

"You're not going to find things like a pound of ground beef at a gas station," said Nathan, an employee at Pogue's Run Grocer.

While the issue has come up in Indiana, there are currently no plans to allow restaurants to take food stamps. But with $64 billion dedicated to the food stamp program, the push by restaurants to get a piece of the pie is likely in the future.