Calling it bad use of public funds, a Mesa lawmaker wants to bar people from using their public benefits cards on fast food.
“If you’ve got a budget crisis and you are looking out for ways to reduce your costs, you stop eating out and you buy your food from the grocery store,” said Rep. Kelly Townsend of Mesa. Fast food, she said, is not a bargain.
“If you go to Jack in the Box, the meal is going to cost you $7,” she continued. “You could have taken that $7 and gotten a gallon of milk and a box of Cheerios or something that will last you.”
Her legislation adds fast-food or quick service restaurants to the list of where benefit cards cannot be used. The current list includes liquor stores, casinos and “adult-oriented entertainment.”
But HB2051 is drawing concern from the Arizona Center for Disability Law. J.J. Rico, the organization’s executive director, said there are some people who simply don’t have the ability to prepare their own food.
He pointed out that the food stamp program, administered through the same electronic benefits card issued by the Department of Economic Security, specifically allows the disabled, elderly and homeless to buy fast food and not just grocery store items.
“The concern to us is if somebody lacks the ability or the means to cook their own meal, that’s kind of their use of how to get food,” Rico said.
Townsend, however, is undeterred.
“I don’t know that just driving through the Taco Bell is the answer,” she said. Townsend said she believe there are other programs, like Meals on Wheels, that can fill in the gaps.
The second-term lawmaker said the relative cost of fast food versus grocery store items is just one issue. Just as significant, she said, is the question of exactly what the benefits are buying.
“We all know what’s in that fast food,” Townsend said. “And taxpayers don’t want to subsidize junk food.”
Beyond that, she said unhealthy eating leads to obesity which leads to health problems – which leads to expensive medical care provided by the state.
Rico, however, said that, for some people, it’s not that simple.
“Fast food, regardless of the nutritional value, is a way to get food that’s cooked and ready to go,” he said. “We would want a person with a disability to have access to that meal if that was their preference.”
Townsend, however, said she’s not buying the argument that fast food is the only option.
“I don’t believe that,” she said. “I don’t see that there’s any excuse to say that is the only system to get food and we should have taxpayers paying for it.”