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Steve Chiotakis: There are some new signs luring customers into fast food restaurants around Los Angeles these days. No, they're not glossy close-ups of half-pound beef patties. They are plain white and blue signs, saying: "Now Accepting EBT" -- that's shorthand for food stamps. Reporter Vanessa Romo has more.
Vanessa Romo: Things weren't always so dire for Maria Ochoa. She once owned a beauty salon, a house, and a gold Lexus. But now she's at El Pollo Loco eating her one hot meal of the day.
Maria Ochoa: I always eat cold food, but I'm tired because sometimes we want some hot meals. And now that I know that they get the EBT, I come here and eat a hot meal.
EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer. It's a debit card for food stamps.
Ochoa, a woman in her 50's with red permed hair and polished nails, is now living in that gold Lexus. Six months ago, she would have been hard-pressed to find a restaurant that takes food stamps. Now El Pollo Loco, Dominos and Jack in Box are part of L.A. county's Restaurant Meals program.
Lydia Erviti oversees the program, which includes more than 500 restaurants.
Lydia Erviti: 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:
Joe Stein: I can tell you for 2010, just the way it's trending, we wouldn't be surprised if for company and franchise stores was over $2 million. From something that just started in August 09, that's 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 Maria Ochoa:
Ochoa: With my blood pressure and my diabetic, I can not eat too much salt and greasy food. That's why I prefer to come here.
For now she's sticking with the grilled chicken.
In Los Angeles, I'm Vanessa Romo for Marketplace.