USDA is firmly committed to ensuring that all Americans have access to a safe, healthy, adequate, and affordable diet. Unfortunately, our nation is facing an unprecedented nutrition crisis, with far too many Americans facing both food insecurity and obesity. Although it seems paradoxical, the two actually go hand in hand far too often. To reverse the course of this two-sided crisis, we must create a cultural change that facilitates and encourages healthy food choices among all Americans.
One example of how the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has been working to implement this cultural shift is the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) project that was recently conducted in Massachusetts. The goal of this project was to provide Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants greater access to healthy foods and better nutrition through financial incentives at the point of purchase. Specifically, USDA tested the impact of providing families with 30 extra cents in SNAP benefits per benefit dollar that they spent on fruits and vegetables…. On average, people who received the incentives ate about 26 percent more fruits and vegetables per day than people who did not receive the incentives—a substantial increase!
Incentives are also part of USDA’s ongoing effort to encourage SNAP clients to shop at local farmers markets. The USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) recently completed [a study], “Nutrition Assistance in Farmers Markets: Understanding the Shopping Patterns of SNAP Participants.” This survey collected information from over 3,200 SNAP participants who shopped at farmers markets, as well as about 1,500 who lived near markets, but opted not to purchase from them. Survey results showed that shoppers view incentives as very important. In fact, participants who knew that particular markets offered incentives when using their SNAP benefit cards were 40 times more likely to shop at those markets!
Farmers markets and nutrition incentive programs have quickly grown in number over the past five years and they are playing a key role in improving access to healthy and affordable local food options among people who are at risk of food insecurity. To encourage innovative uses of the incentives in a wide range of retail settings, Congress authorized the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant program in 2013. Information on this important grant opportunity is available here; applications are due Dec. 15, 2014.
While no single solution can solve the problems of food insecurity and obesity among Americans, USDA continues to explore creative strategies, including various incentive programs. The agency is encouraged by the results thus far and hopeful that such programs will play a role in building a healthier, food-secure America.