An investment of 15 cents per person per day can result in a 25% increase in their consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, according to results from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Healthy Incentives Pilot program.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack discussed the two-year pilot program during a press conference July 24, saying that arbitrary cuts to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (food stamps) will not improve the health of Americans and will actually hurt retailers and growers.
“Although healthy foods aren’t necessarily more expensive, many low-income people face challenges that can make less healthy options seem more appealing,” Vilsack said.
The Healthy Incentives Pilot demonstrates the effect that promoting nutritious food choices can have on improving the healthfulness of SNAP purchases, he said.
The USDA needs Congress to be a partner in its efforts to make sure all Americans have access to healthy foods through its 15 different assistance programs, which include SNAP, Vilsack said during the news conference.
“We must define these programs in a comprehensive five-year (farm bill). Splitting food programs away is not the right way and will make things more complicated,” Vilsack said. “I believe the debate in Congress fails to recognize who these people are.”
Vilsack said 92% of the people receiving SNAP benefits are elderly, disabled, children or workers who don’t make enough money to make ends meet. He said an arbitrary $20 billion cut in food programs will not gain approval in the Senate or from the president because it will mean 2 million to 3 million people who truly need assistance won’t get it.
“That arbitrary cut will mean a reduction in retail sales and a $3 billion reduction in farm income,” Vilsack said.
The press conference also included comments from Oran Hesterman, president of the Fair Food Network in Detroit where a double-up program at three grocery stores is providing food stamp users tokens to buy fresh produce grown in that state.
Hesterman said his organization is finding that incentives in place for four years in Michigan to encourage fresh fruit and vegetable consumption among SNAP recipients has shown that 75% of growers are making more money and 80% of the SNAP participants are eating more fresh produce.
“It’s a win, win, win for consumers, retailers and farmers,” Hesterman said. “People have thought that you need a carrot and stick approach to encourage healthy eating. It turns out we are finding you just need a better carrot and no stick.”
Vilsack had a similar response when a reporter from Minnesota Public Radio asked his opinion on adding restrictions to what foods SNAP users can buy.
“That sounds simple, but it gets very complex very quickly,” Vilsack said. He used shredded wheat as an example, explaining that reduced-sugar shredded wheat might sound more healthy, but in fact, the increased salt and other negative factors make sugared shredded wheat the more healthy choice.
“And then there is the enforcement issue,” Vilsack said. “When you’ve got 250,000 facilities selling (groceries) with 18-year-old clerks at the registers trying to figure out if someone is trying to use SNAP for restricted foods while there are long lines of customers, it’s just not a good answer.
“That’s why we did this study — to see if incentives work. We see that they do, and it doesn’t take big incentives. A 25% increase for 15 cents a day shows that.”