Vilsack: Pilot program shows SNAP incentive increases consumption of produce

August 20, 2013
Source: The Hagstrom Report

A small increase in the amount of money that food stamp beneficiaries could spend on fruits and vegetables leads to a 25 percent increase in the amount of consumption of produce, according to a report Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack released today.

The study, which was authorized by the 2008 farm bill and conducted in Hampden County, Mass., from November 2011 to December 2012, provided beneficiaries of the food stamp program, formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP, an incentive of 30 cents for every dollar they spent on fruits and vegetables. The SNAP beneficiaries were allowed to spend the extra 30 cents on any type of food.

The increased cost to the SNAP program was 15 cents per day per beneficiary, a figure that included the incentive and increased administrative and evaluation costs. The total cost of the pilot project was $16.4 million ($6.4 million to the state of Massachusetts to run it, $10 million for evaluation). That does not include the cost of the regular SNAP benefits to the 55,000 households in the pilot project.

Hampden County has the lowest median income in Massachusetts, but some members of Congress and critics have suggested that a similar project should be conducted in a state with a higher rate of obesity and lower incomes than Massachusetts. Holyoke is the largest city in Hampden County.

Approximately 60 percent of the observed difference was due to a difference in consumption of vegetables and 40 percent due to a difference in consumption of fruit, the results showed.

In a telephone news conference, Vilsack did not indicate any plans to take the pilot project nationwide, but said that USDA has the authority to conduct further pilot projects to encourage SNAP beneficiaries to eat healthy food.

Asked whether the government should also restrict what SNAP beneficiaries can buy, Vilsack repeated earlier statements that placing restrictions on SNAP purchases would be complicated.

Grocery stores stock 300,000 products, and 10,000 to 20,000 products are introduced each year, Vilsack noted. Evaluating all those products would be difficult, he said.

He also said it is often difficult to decide which product is healthier, he said, noting that regular shredded wheat has less sodium than reduced-sugar shredded wheat. Making some foods eligible for SNAP purchases and others ineligible could create long lines in grocery stores and make the jobs of clerks, more difficult he added. But if consumers are better educated about food, they will demand better food in the future, he concluded.

Vilsack was joined on the call by Oran Hesterman, president and CEO of the Fair Food Network, a Detroit, Mich. organization that has partnered with USDA to provide “double bucks” coupons for SNAP beneficiaries to increase their consumption of fresh, healthy, locally-grown food.

Hesterman said his network has focused on farmers’ markets, but is now working with grocery stores because people buy 85 percent of their food in the stores.

The Fair Food Network operates in the summer months, he said, and emphasizes purchases of locally-produced fruits and vegetables but is working on a program that would allow beneficiaries to make purchases year-round even if those fruits and vegetables are grown at a distance.

First posted on The Hagstrom Report on July 24, 2013.