Fresh Produce for Food Stamps: Good News/Bad News
By Miryam Ehrlich Williamson
Good news first: A federal program intended to boost sales of fresh fruits and vegetables will target low-income families in Hampden County, Massachusetts, in the state’s southwestern corner. Several thousand of the region’s 50,000 food stamp recipients will get a 30% discount off the price of fresh produce that they buy using the debit-like card issued under the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) food assistance program.
The US Department of Agriculture awarded the money to Massachusetts and a Cambridge-based research organization, hoping to find out whether lowering the cost of produce will encourage homemakers to prepare more nutritious meals. The program will also track health outcomes among participants, including the incidence of obesity, diabetes, and related ailments. Health and weight tracking will be carried out over a 15-month period.
Participating families get a 30 cent reduction for every dollar they spend on fresh fruits and vegetables. They can make their purchases in stores or at farmers markets that have the equipment to handle debit card transactions.
The families will be chosen at random from among the benefit-receiving population in Hampden County, a part of the Connecticut River valley with a population of some 482,000 that includes Springfield, Massachusetts’s third largest city.
The research firm will compare health outcomes not only with consumption of fresh foods, but also with race, age, and income. The program, authorized in the 2008 Farm Bill, is meant to help planners determine the extent to which financial incentives work to modify food choice behavior. Work is already underway to develop the next farm bill, which Congress will adopt in 2012.
The bad news: Although the program was approved in 2008, it won’t begin until the fall of 2011, which means it’s unlikely to have accumulated much data by the time the 2012 farm bill is drafted. Meanwhile, obesity, diabetes, and related ailments increase at a frightful rate, especially in low-income communities.
Behavioral scientists and others question whether the financial incentive will have much effect on behavior, not because it is only 30 cents on a dollar, but because it will be calculated when the recipient swipes her benefits card, and may therefore not be noticed.
According to the Boston Globe, Dr. Kevin Volpp, director of the Center for Health Incentives at the University of Pennsylvania, incentives work best when they are immediately visible.
Volpp suggests that the distribution of a discount coupon for future fruit and vegetable purchases might be a more effective way to influence behavior and increase consumption of healthy foods.
And even if the 30-cent discount does succeed in increasing produce consumption relative to those who pay normal prices, the government will need to fund future studies to see whether other types of financial incentives change behavior more efficiently, Volpp said.
Additionally, fresh foods are hard to find in low-income neighborhoods, which are typically shunned by supermarkets. Research into availability of fruits and vegetables should have been part of the program design, lest the results make it look like low participation is the result of lack of interest.
Furthermore, parents in low-income families often must work multiple minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills and think they don’t have time to cook fresh veggies for dinner. This, too, may make low participation look like the discounts are ineffective.
The Globe also reports that
About half the grant will go to Abt Associates Inc., a consulting company that will conduct three surveys during the research period to determine whether the produce consumption of those receiving the subsidy is markedly different from that of other families.
Up to $4 million could go toward the subsidies and about $6 million will go toward equipment and administrative costs.
Maybe it’s just me, but I have a problem with a nutrition program in which 25% goes toward feeding people in need and the rest goes to the researchers. Why not a 50% discount on the fresh food and more economical “equipment and administrative costs?”
This smells like those multimillion dollar corporate class action suits in which each wronged consumer gets a check for $5 and the lawyers walk off with the millions. If only, just once, the money would go into the pockets that need them, rather than those already full.