News that Yum! Brands is dropping its bid to let customers use EBT (the debit card system used in place of old-school food stamps) at Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Long John Silver’s, and KFC might have surprised anyone unfamiliar with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). You see, thanks to a provision that dates back to the 1970s allowing restaurants to accept EBT for the disabled, the homeless, and the elderly (people who can’t cook for themselves), some surprising restaurants and grocery stores are finding it worth their while to sign on with the program.

In fact, as USA Today reported in September, “Between 2005 and 2010, the number of businesses certified in the SNAP program went from about 156,000 to nearly 209,000, according to USDA data. There is big money at stake. USDA records show food stamp benefits swelled from $28.5 billion to $64.7 billion in that period.”

In many cities, under the Restaurant Meals program that began in California and has spread to other states, Burger King is among the fast-food chains that accept EBT, along with Jack in the Box, Subway, Domino’s, and KFC/Taco Bell. Individual franchisees decide whether to sign up for the program, which is administered by the states, so not every BK outlet, for example, accepts EBT.

But if you’re on the SNAP rolls in certain states, near restaurant franchises that have opted in (say, San Francisco), you can use your EBT card to purchase a Whopper, fries, and a Coke. This aspect of SNAP has been criticized widely, but hunger advocates point out that a hot meal is a hot meal, even if it’s fast food.

You can also get a tall caramel macchiato via EBT. Regulations against prepared food once restricted SNAP users from ordering cups of coffee to go. They could buy a bag of coffee to make at home, but not a cup from the same store’s deli. Now that the Restaurant Meals program is in full swing, indie coffeehouses and many urban Starbucks accept EBT.

How about live lobsters? This is the kind of thing opponents always mention when criticizing SNAP, but yes, you can get luxury seafood with EBT. Pretty much anything you can get at a grocery store is fair game, excluding booze and hot deli items.

That includes Snickers bars and Oreos—though booze, cigarettes, and hot deli items are forbidden. In practical terms that means that, while you can certainly use EBT to stock up on Red Bull, you’re going to have to pay for the vodka yourself. And until Yum! Brands succeeds at overcoming USDA opposition to its taking part in SNAP, that means you’ll have to buy your own KFC Extra Crispy Strips, too.

Image source: Flickr member stevendepolo under Creative Commons

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