Homeless Use Food Stamp Debit Card to Eat in San Francisco Restaurants

Special to The Times

Although a cheese steak sub with extra bacon may be an unconventional breakfast for many, for Paul Snow, it sure beats the only alternative.

“I’d rather have a hot meal here than breakfast at my shelter,” the 28-year-old aspiring tattoo artist said as he buried his teeth in the enormous sandwich.

Snow, who is homeless, was the first customer of the day at a Subway sandwich shop on the outskirts of the gritty Tenderloin district. But instead of paying cash, he used a debit card that deducted the purchase from his food stamp benefits account.

San Francisco is the first locale in the state to offer the option of spending food stamps in restaurants. Previously, food stamps could be used only to buy unprepared foods, a problem for those with no place to store or cook food, said Leo O’Farrell, director of the food stamp program for the San Francisco County Department of Human Services. Older and disabled people who cannot cook for themselves also suffered.


Under the new San Francisco program that began this month, the city’s approximately 4,000 homeless and 2,000 elderly and disabled recipients of food stamps can use their benefits to buy warm meals in several restaurants -- most of them Subway shops -- throughout the city.

The new option, O’Farrell said, allows people to get healthy meals when they might have used the food stamps to purchase snacks. “It’s a fresh alternative for the homeless and needy,” he said.

The program may spread to other California communities.

“Given how difficult it is for most homeless people to prepare even basic meals, we will encourage local officials to implement a similar program in Los Angeles County,” said Mitchell Netburn, executive director of the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority.


In San Francisco, 14 restaurants -- 13 Subway shops and a mom-and-pop diner -- accept the special food stamp debit cards.

But while applauding the new measure, advocates for the homeless also are asking why it took so long to implement.

“People are happy about it, but it’s about 13 years too late,” said Jennifer Friedenbach, project coordinator for the San Francisco Coalition on Homelessness.

Changes in federal food stamp rules made it possible for the homeless to use food stamps in restaurants in 1990, and disabled people and seniors have been able to do so since 1974.


But local and state authorities have been slow to implement the change. Only 19 states, including California, offer the food stamp restaurant meals program.

Dan Celestina, a development agent for Subway restaurants in San Francisco, said the sandwich chain was a perfect match for the program, and that stores have been serving 20 to 30 food stamp customers a day.

He predicted that the program would catch on in other counties and at other Subways throughout California.

“It’s really a local initiative,” he said, adding: “The L.A. market would probably want to jump on this right away.”


Although many restaurant owners might be reluctant to adopt any program that would bring homeless customers to their establishments, Hal Sieling, a restaurant consultant based in Carlsbad, said the decision by Subway was a good one.

“I think they’d be fools to say no,” Sieling said. “The same guy could come in tomorrow with money.”

Holding a fistful of receipts from food stamp customers at the Tenderloin district Subway shop, employee Johnny Monteverde said more and more people are coming after seeing a sign advertising the program.

Many homeless people come in for breakfast after a night on the streets, Monteverde said. “Almost all of my first customers use food stamps,” he said. “They come in and check their balance, and if they have enough money, they buy something.”


But the new program is not without its glitches.

After checking with his case manager and verifying that he had $115 in his food stamp account, Ken Taylor recently went straight to a Subway for a steak sandwich, only to have his card rejected. After calling his case manager on a borrowed cell phone, Taylor was told that he would have to wait several hours because his account had not been properly credited.

“I’m starving and I smell the aroma of steak,” said Taylor, who lives in a nearby single-room occupancy hotel with no kitchen and works odd jobs to get by. “I’m 280 pounds, man. I need some food.... What if I had a family?”