Health & Spirit

Rewards program encourages SNAP recipients to make healthy choices

Teresa Wiltz, on

Published in Health & Fitness

WASHINGTON -- Cities and states are trying new ways to entice food stamp recipients to eat their fruits and vegetables.

One approach that's gaining popularity: offering rebates to low-income families when they buy fresh produce. A program in Massachusetts was so popular that it ran out of rebate money and had to be suspended.

By rewarding food stamp recipients for making healthy choices, advocates hope to encourage low-income people to eat more fruits and vegetables.

Buying fresh fruits and vegetables can be expensive -- especially for families trying to live on $126 a person, the average monthly food stamp benefit in 2017. That's $1.40 for a meal.

But even as food advocates are trying to make these programs work, they worry that efforts underway in Washington could eliminate them.

President Donald Trump this month proposed slashing benefits under the federal food stamp program by nearly 30 percent. To help cut costs, food stamp recipients would get a box of canned and packaged goods rather than using their benefits to choose their own food -- an idea that food security researchers and advocates say would be a logistical nightmare.

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Trump's proposals "are about saving money for purposes other than public health," said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. "But surely public health is a public good worth supporting?"

Trump's budget proposal would also eliminate funding for the Food Insecurity Nutrition Initiative (FINI), a U.S. Department of Agriculture program that gives grants to programs that offer incentives to food stamp recipients for buying produce.

And that has advocates worried. While presidential budgets routinely are considered "dead on arrival" in Congress, lawmakers are at work on a new farm bill, which would provide funding for the food stamp program, known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and the FINI grants.

The FINI program was created by the 2014 farm bill, and Congress appropriated $100 million for the program, to be doled out over a four-year period, through 2018. Programs that get FINI grants all offer incentives to low-income shoppers, such as coupons or loyalty cards. Typically, for every dollar spent on produce, shoppers get another dollar to buy more later.


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