Monday, September 22, 2008

A Healthy Incentive Pilot to supplement food stamp benefits

There seems to be real motion this year on proposals to pilot some type of healthy incentives supplement to the basic benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the new name for the Food Stamp Program). The supplemental benefits could be targeted to particularly healthy foods, such as fruits, vegetables, or whole grains.

Technical questions concern whether a supplemental benefit should be incorporated into Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) card benefits, or whether it should use some type of paper coupon system. If the EBT cards are used, would a single card be re-programmed to have separate accounts for restricted and unrestricted food benefits, or would a client carry two EBT cards?

The Farm Bill included language promoting a pilot program. USDA's Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) is hosting an upcoming symposium on the topic, on Oct. 16, in Alexandria, VA. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) in July released a report (.pdf), describing some of the options:
Changing individuals’ eating habits is difficult, given the many factors that influence food choices. However, the pilot projects authorized in the recent Farm Bill provide FNS with a unique opportunity to test whether financial incentives would help low-income Americans purchase and consume more of the foods that contribute to a healthy diet. Although research has found that financial incentives and nutrition education both show promise, not enough is known about the costs and long-term effectiveness of these approaches, either alone or in combination. Moreover, the financial incentives studied included coupons. Incentives using the current EBT technology, although technically feasible, are largely untested at this point. Also, the success of efforts to improve dietary intake may hinge in part on the availability of targeted foods, which may be limited in certain areas, such as small stores in large urban areas. Little is known about efforts to increase access to healthy foods. Only by testing these approaches, either alone or in combination, can the costs of such a program be estimated.
Here is a partial illustration of just one of several mechanisms explored in the GAO report.


Kumar said...

California passed legislation a couple years ago to pilot such an incentive. However, the pilot, called the Healthy Purchase Pilot Program, was never funded, partially due to the $16 billion budget deficit the state is currently struggling to deal with.

In a nutshell, the pilot would would provide an incentive to food stamp recipients to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables by putting a credit (perhaps of about 30 to 40 cents) back onto their EBT cards for every dollar they spend on fresh produce. In addition, the pilot program would provide some funding to small "corner stores" in low-income areas to help them carry and sell fresh produce.

We currently have a bill waiting to be signed by the Governor that would allow other sources of funding, such as federal or private money, to fund this pilot program. You can find more info at the following link:

Part of the pilot also includes an evaluation of the program. We are hopeful that the Governor will sign the legislation on his desk to get this pilot moving, so that we can see if these incentive strategies improve the diets of low-income Americans.

I imagine we'll be periodically posting information about the progress of the pilot program once it receives funding. Check back on CA Food Policy Advocates' website if you'd like more info,

Ashley said...

Could we not use these cards to track the type of food that people requiring assistance are buying; much like grocery stores track peoples purchases?

I think price incentives such as Kumar suggested are feasible.

Parke Wilde said...

In an article for the Journal of Consumer Affairs, Margaret Andrews and I did some work using EBT transactions data a few years ago, but we had only the date and amount and location of each transaction, not the actual food purchased. The only study I have ever seen that used actual foods linked to EBT cards was a study by John Kirlin and colleagues in the 1990s.