Getting even a bit of extra money for buying more fruits and
vegetables can help the poor improve their shopping habits and eat healthier
foods, according to US agriculture officials.
Initial findings from a small Department of Agriculture
pilot program found that people on food stamps who received such incentives ate
25% more produce than those who did not, equivalent to about an extra fifth of
a cup (47 ml) of fruits and vegetables a day.
While that may not sound like much, over the course of a
month that can add up to about six extra cups (1.42 litres) of wholesome food,
something officials and some nutrition experts said was a meaningful start,
especially for a population struggling to eat healthily.
USDA recommends anywhere from 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and
1½ to 3 cups of fruit a day for adults, depending on age and activity
levels, but many struggle to reach those levels because of their relative high
cost and extra preparation often needed compared to processed food.
"Many low income people face additional time and
resource challenges when it comes to putting healthy food on the table that can
make less healthy options seem more appealing," the agency said in the
choice made easier
Dr Scott Kahan, a physician and head of the Strategies to Overcome
and Prevent Obesity Alliance, said the results helped show consumers that
"making the healthy choice is the easy choice."The findings follow a
13-month pilot program of 55 000 households receiving food stamps in 2012 in
Hampden County, Massachusetts, the state's poorest area.
About 7 500 families were randomly assigned to be eligible
to receive 30 cents back for every federal food stamp dollar spent on certain produce.
About 70% of those given refunds said they "felt that fruits and
vegetables had become more affordable", USDA said.
Under the program, those in the
experimental group on average got an extra R35 credit back after spending
about R116 a month on produce. Excluding those who did not buy eligible
produce, participants earned back an average of R54 a month for about R180
in fruit and vegetable purchases. Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition
Assistance Program, or SNAP, food stamps help poor people buy groceries.
The programme's cost has more than doubled and enrolment is
up by 20 million people since the 2007-09 recessions. Nearly one in seven
Americans receives food stamps, and the average benefit is ±R14 per meal.
Besides becoming a target for budget-cutters in Congress, the program has drawn
attention for what participants buy.
Limiting processed food
Critics and health advocates point to the use of food stamps
to buy soda and other processed foods that they say can contribute to health
problems like obesity and diabetes, costing the government more in health
coverage later on.
While some lawmakers have called for limits on using food
stamps to buy processed foods, the food industry opposes any restrictions. The
Grocery Manufacturers Association has said such limits unfairly curb consumer
choice and burden companies. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday's report
shows the clear impact that promoting nutritious food choices can have on
improving the healthfulness of SNAP purchases. Other private and
state-based groups have also offered varying financial incentives to those
receiving food assistance, but many of those efforts are more generous and
Wholesome Wave, which connects food stamp users and other
aid recipients to farmers' markets, found in its own study last year that SNAP
participants given 100% in matching dollars right at the market bought 80% more
produce."Nutrition incentives work," said Gus Schumacher, the group's
vice president of policy.
It is unclear whether the pilot program, which was funded in
the 2008 farm law, could be expanded. While the US Senate has passed
legislation to renew the law that included funding for such an effort, the
House of Representatives version strips out food stamp funding altogether.
A final report on the pilot will offer a closer look on
participants' shopping patterns and other details, USDA said.