Federal officials today announced the results of an effort to encourage food-stamp recipients to buy healthy food. Two years ago, the U.S. Department of Agriculture launched a yearlong pilot program in Massachusetts that offered recipients of food stamps — which is officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — an extra reason to buy fruits and vegetables. Each time people spent $1 on produce, they would receive an additional 30 cents on their food stamp card.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today that program led to a 25 percent increase in fruit and vegetable consumption among the adult participants, equivalent to about an extra fifth of a cup of produce a day. The results show, he said, that incentives work.
"That's the reason why we did this study," he said, "to determine whether or not an incentive would be a powerful enough effort and tool to enable us to encourage folks to make the right set of choices."
Today's results from Massachusetts are resonating closer to home. Last month, Minnesota officials launched a similar pilot. At three grocery stores across the state — one in Crystal, one in Cass Lake, and one in Duluth — food-stamp recipients who spend $5 on fresh produce receive a $5 coupon to buy more.
The pilot program in Massachusetts cost the USDA about 15 cents per person per day.
"We see now that it doesn't take a whole lot of assistance or incentive for folks to make a choice to purchase a fruit or [a] vegetable," Vilsack said. "If a 25 percent increase comes from less than 15 cents a day, I mean, that's a good solid message for us to take and to think about, in terms of the structure of this program."
The Healthy Incentives Pilot run by the USDA operated in Hampden County, Mass., between November 2011 and December 2012. Approximately 7,500 randomly selected households were eligible to receive the incentive. [More: Healthy Incentives Pilot results]