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More Retailers, Restaurants Say Yes To EBT Cards, Food Stamps

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Restaurant Meals Program gives homeless, elderly and disabled beneficiaries a leg up

By Chris Levister –

At this Shell gas station on the corner of Waterman Avenue and Orange Show Road in San Bernardino, motorists can fill up, drink up, get a car wash with cash and credit cards and now buy bread, cereal, sandwiches, candy, chips and even frozen pizzas with food stamps.

At a growing number of area restaurant locations including Domino’s Pizza and El Pollo Loco some food stamps beneficiaries can get a hot prepared meal.

More local businesses are accepting EBT cards-food stamps, as a record number of consumers are turning to government aid to pay for groceries.

EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer. It's a debit card for food stamps.

Shell Food Mart manager Oscar Ortiz says the number of low income residents in his community has been steadily increasing.

“A lot of people are feeling the effects of the recession. People who’ve never been on government assistance come in and ask if we accept food stamps and EBT cards. This is helping the community as well as us,” he said.

Typically people think food stamps are used for staple items like milk and bread and while generally they are, the item list is expanding to include things like candy, chips and pre-packaged sandwiches which can be microwaved in the store.

Since June of 2009, places like WalMart, Costco, Target, 7-Eleven, The Dollar Store and various convenience stores around the area have been accepting EBT cards. Drug retailers Walgreen and CVS accept EBT cards.

Sam’s Club is also offering its members another way to purchase products.

Officials said because of the current economic environment, they will start accepting EBT cards at some stores. Now some restaurants are rushing to cash in because the demand is growing.

Until now it's been a struggle to use food stamps at restaurants, but that’s changing under a program called Restaurant Meals.

The program allows homeless, elderly (age 60 or over), and disabled beneficiaries to use food stamp benefits to purchase certain ‘health choice’ prepared meals using Golden State Advantage (EBT) card at participating restaurants.

Last month Patricia Davis, who is homeless, reluctantly applied for food stamps after losing her job as a hotel housekeeper.

“I had to do what was best for my 3 kids,” she said. But until now she said most restaurants thumbed their noses at food stamps. Under the state’s evolving Restaurants Meals program Davis and her kids can have at least one hot meal a day.

Lydia Erviti oversees Restaurant Meals, which includes more than 500 restaurants.

“Our goal is to provide healthy meals for the homeless, disabled and elderly participants, especially the homeless because they don't have space to store food or cook.”

Restaurant Meals is also paying off for those on the cooking end. Joe Stein is the head of Strategy and Innovation for El Pollo Loco: “We wouldn't be surprised if the EBT revenue growth for company and franchise stores was over $2 million. From something that just started in August 09, that's a pretty good size growth.”

Good enough to interest other chains in joining the program like Pizza Hut and Burger King. But food stamps still won't get you a Big Mac or Chicken McNuggets. Not yet anyway. That's OK with Davis.

“I think fast food restaurants are finally waking up to the obesity crisis. You can now find a lot of health choices on their menus. With my blood pressure and my diabetics, I try to avoid eating too much salt and greasy food. That’s what makes this a good deal.”

For now she's sticking with grilled chicken and a side salad.