Photo: William Couch, Flickr
There are currently two major concerns surrounding the country's food stamp program: does financial incentive (discounts) change people's eating habits? In other words, is obesity and other health deficiencies more common in low-income populations simply because healthier food costs more? The second is: how should the government help? A new incentive pilot program announced yesterday offers discounts for fresh produce, and it may be the government's biggest step towards clarity.
As The Boston Globe reports, The Agriculture Department awarded $20 million to Massachusetts and Abt Associates, Inc (a research firm in Cambridge) as part of its Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to temporarily grant thousands of Hampden County food stamp recipients with a 30-cent discount on every dollar spent on fresh produce. Out of the 50,000 households with food stamps in the county, these select families with then be tracked for 15 months to see how their health compares to food stamp recipients paying full price for produce. The program is estimated to start next fall.
This is not the first initiative to change the eating habits of low-income populations. Last week, The New York Times reported on health centers (also in Massachusetts) that are handing out produce prescriptions -- really, go have an apple a day -- now in the form of $1/day coupons to local farmers markets. In the 1980s, pregnant low-income residents received farmers market coupons for fear that children would develop malnourished, the Times reports.
Democrats in the House recently expressed concern over the Senate's $4.5 billion child-nutrition bill as well the $26 billion state-aid package for Medicaid and educational funding. The latter would save teachers from being laid off before the new school year, but would take away funds for the food stamp program. Hence, the concern: how should the government help?
This new experiment, notes Agriculture Department undersecretary Kevin Concannon, is "one of the largest in the history of the Food and Nutrition Service... We have a lot of information on nutrition, we have a lot of information of health, but we have a lot less information on what influences behavior," reports The Boston Globe. Most of the grant money will go to the consulting firm to conduct routine surveys and research with the selected families in the program; the rest may go towards subsidies, equipment and administrative costs if the research shows that cheaper food does, in fact, always win.