Food for Thought: It sounds like a good idea, doesn't it? Restaurant News, an industry trade paper, reports that a New York hunger-relief agency has opened up the city's first, and only, full-service restaurant that accepts food stamps.

One City Cafe, a nonprofit venture operated by the Food and Hunger Hotline, uses a two-tier pricing system. Customers with cash pay about twice as much for their meals as those using food stamps. Guests ordering lasagna, for instance, have to fork over either $6 worth of food stamps or 12 genuine American bucks.

Along with providing dining options for people on welfare, One City Cafe also aims to use the restaurant as a job-training site for residents of the city's shelters and halfway houses. The idea is to teach food-service skills and make once-unemployable people employable. Where did the agency get the hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund the restaurant? The money came from a variety of sources: government grants, corporate donations and individual largess (Bruce Springsteen gave $180,000). The restaurant also got a break on the lease, and inherited the kitchen equipment, tables, chairs and marble bar left by the previous tenant.

The more I thought about this enterprise, however, the less sense it made. As a job-training exercise, it's massively inefficient. Why not simply place people eager to work into existing positions instead of pouring money into building a costly restaurant operation from scratch?

And what's the logic behind subsidizing a restaurant meal for people who can't otherwise afford it? Surely, $6 worth of food stamps can buy a lot more food at the supermarket, and feed more people, than it can at One City Cafe.

The people at the Food and Hunger Hotline reason that an occasional meal out can make the needy feel better about themselves. But why stop there? If down-on-their-luck patrons can get a shot of self-esteem by dining at One City Cafe, think how much better they'd feel about themselves after a gourmet meal at 21.

Hungry, impoverished people need help. But I have my doubts that a concept like One City Cafe is the best way to provide it. Rotisserie League: Kenny Rogers Roasters is the latest rotisserie-chicken spot to hit the Valley. It's amazing to me how this product is getting marketed--as health food. It looks like Rogers' recipe meisters have designed their chicken to have a smidgen fewer calories, grams of fat and milligrams of salt than rival Boston Chicken's bird. Presumably, corporate thinking must run, fast-fooders insane enough to imagine that shaving off 18 calories, two grams of fat or 28 milligrams of salt can affect their weight or health will be lured into Kenny Rogers Roasters. But think about this. Drinking your cup of coffee black instead of with milk will have just about the same nutritional impact.

Food isn't medicine. Eat sensibly, and lighten up.


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