WITH growing concerns over obesity as well as the rising number of people receiving government nutrition assistance, new findings from a pilot project show that incentives might work to encourage more fruit and vegetable consumption, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.
Vilsack released the results of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), which evaluated 4,000 participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps.
Under HIP, SNAP participants' households received an incentive of 30 cents for every SNAP dollar spent on targeted fruits and vegetables that was credited back to their SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card. The incentive could then be spent on any SNAP-eligible foods and beverages.
The two-year study found that an ongoing investment of less than 15 cents per person per day may result in a 25% increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among adults. Adults receiving the HIP incentive consumed, on average, an ounce more fruits and vegetables per day than non-participants.
On average, from March to July 2012, HIP households spent $12.13 on targeted fruits and vegetables in participating stores and earned an average incentive of $3.64 each month. Excluding households that did not earn any incentive during the month, HIP households made $18.50 in targeted fruit and vegetable purchases and earned $5.55 in incentives.
Vilsack explained that partnerships with nonprofit entities can play a vital part in helping to expand pilot opportunities in other states, and they don't require congressional authority.
For instance, in Minnesota, a public/private partnership has offered SNAP households $5 coupons to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables.
In Detroit, Mich., the Fair Food Network's Double Up Food Bucks program has doubled the spending power for SNAP shoppers at local farmers markets while also supporting local farmers. The program matches SNAP benefits spent at participating farmers markets.
At the farmers markets, participants can swipe their EBT SNAP card for $20 in expenditures and receive an additional $20 in tokens that can be spent on any Michigan-grown product.
Oran Hesterman, president and chief executive officer of Fair Food Network, said over the last four years, the incentive has helped increase the number of new shoppers to farmers markets, and 80% of the SNAP customers using the program say they are now buying and eating more fruits and vegetables.
It is also what he coined a "win-win-win" because the program has generated an additional $3 million for local farmers, and 75% of the farmers selling at the local markets say they are making more money because of the program; in addition, farmers report that they are selling more fruits and vegetables (Figure).
The Fair Food Network is also expanding the program to three grocery stores in the Detroit area by providing a $10 reward card when at least $10 is spent on local fresh fruits and vegetables.
Since the farmers market programs run only from July to October, allowing similar purchases to be made outside of the normal growing season is more adaptable with this approach.
"It's often been said that if you're going to change behavior, you need a carrot on the stick, but our Double Up Food Bucks shows that all you really need is a better-tasting and affordable carrot," Hesterman said.
Vilsack was asked by members of the media why the government isn't conducting any pilot projects to find ways to restrict "lousy" food purchases.
Vilsack said although it "may seem like a relatively simple idea in terms of capacity to restrict what recipients are able to buy, the sheer volume of new products makes that difficult."
Food companies introduce 10,000-20,000 new products into stores each year on top of the already 300,000 products currently available.
Vilsack noted that it is difficult to determine what is regarded as "healthy." For instance, a shredded wheat cereal and a reduced-sugar shredded wheat cereal would both seem to be healthy, but in fact, the reduced-sugar variety has a higher sodium level.
"Sometimes, it's hard to figure out what's nutritious and what isn't," he said, which is why more consumer education is needed.
Vilsack added that enforcement of restrictions would also be difficult.