The New America Foundation, which conducted the study with the Harvard School of Public Health and other partners, said in a news release changes are needed in the administration of SNAP benefits to enable the $78 billion program to help battle the twin crises of food insecurity and obesity.
The recently released report, “Strategies to improve the dietary quality of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) beneficiaries: an assessment of stakeholder opinions” was published in Public Health Nutrition. and compiled the views of more than 500 professionals who work in some way with the SNAP program.
“Stakeholders believed that vouchers, coupons or monetary incentives for purchasing healthful foods might have the greatest potential for improving the diets of SNAP participants,” according to study’s summary.
Compared to restricting purchases of unhealthy food, incentives for healthy food purchases have broad political support, according to Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C. One example of an incentive program is the Double Up Food Bucks program in Michigan, which doubles the food stamp purchase benefit for local fruit and vegetables bought at Michigan farmers markets and a few retailers.
DiSogra said that Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., and chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has included $100 million in the Senate version of the farm bill to provide federal matching funds to help support incentive programs in states.
“Everybody feels if we ever get a farm bill, that the funding for incentives will be there and that will be the first federal money that has gone into this effort,” she said.
Officials from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Centers for Disease Control also are interested in the incentive program, DiSogra said.
DiSogra said the number of incentive programs for healthy is spreading across the country, fueled by philanthropic and health care foundations,
“We are really supporting this because we see that this is the innovation that could be coming,” DiSogra said. “This is the one thing that everybody agrees to.”
Typically, most incentive programs have applied to farmers markets, but the Fair Food Network’s Double Up Food Bucks has piloted a program in Michigan for independent supermarkets. Another healthy food incentive project in Minnesota was retail-based, DiSogra said.
The New America Foundation report said key barriers to improving the diets of the 47 million SNAP participants were unhealthy foods marketed in low-income communities (55%), the comparatively high cost of healthy foods (50%) and the lifestyle challenges (47%) faced by low-income individuals and SNAP participants.
Of those responding to the survey, 77% said SNAP food purchases should be consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, more than 80% of those surveyed believe the USDA should collect data about food purchases made with SNAP benefits to help evaluate whether certain products may be associated with obesity among those who receive SNAP benefits.
“Aligning SNAP with national public health priorities is a matter of urgency to ensure a healthier future for low-income Americans,” authors of the report said.
Those responding to the survey expressed support for new approaches to improve the nutritional status of SNAP recipients, according to the release, including:
- Providing a variety of incentives for purchasing healthful foods;
- Minimum standards for stocking healthy foods to be certified as a SNAP retailer;
- Updating nutrition education and messaging in the SNAP program to be consistent with other federal nutrition assistance programs; and
- Using information technology and social media for nutrition education and outreach.