* Effort aimed to boost fruit and vegetable consumption
* Pilot project targeted at food stamp beneficiaries
* USDA effort cost about 15 cents a day per person
By Susan Heavey
WASHINGTON, July 24 Getting even a bit of extra
money for buying more fruits and vegetables can help the poor
improve their shopping habits and eat healthier foods, U.S.
agriculture officials said on Wednesday.
Initial findings from a small Department of Agriculture
pilot program found that people on food stamps who received such
incentives ate 25 percent more produce than who did not,
equivalent to about an extra fifth of a cup (47 ml) of fruits
and vegetables a day.
While that may not sound like much, over the course of a
month that can add up to about six extra cups (1.42 liters) of
wholesome food, something officials and some nutrition experts
said was a meaningful start, especially for a population
struggling to eat healthily.
USDA recommends anywhere from 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and
1-1/2 to 3 cups of fruit a day for adults, depending on age and
activity levels, but many struggle to reach those levels because
of their relative high cost and extra preparation often needed
compared to processed food.
"Many low income people face additional time and resource
challenges when it comes to putting healthy food on the table
that can make less healthy options seem more appealing," the
agency said in the initial report.
Scott Kahan, a physician and head of the Strategies to
Overcome and Prevent Obesity Alliance, said the results helped
show consumers that "making the healthy choice is the easy
The findings follow a 13-month pilot program of 55,000
households receiving food stamps in 2012 in Hampden County,
Massachusetts, the state's poorest area. About 7,500 families
were randomly assigned to be eligible to receive 30 cents back
for every federal food stamp dollar spent on certain produce.
About 70 percent of those given refunds said they "felt that
fruits and vegetables had become more affordable," USDA said.
SNAP PROGRAM UNDER FIRE
Under the program, those in the experimental group on
average got an extra $3.64 credit back after spending about $12
a month on produce. Excluding those who did not buy eligible
produce, participants earned back an average of $5.55 a month
for about $18.50 in fruit and vegetable purchases.
Formally known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance
Program, or SNAP, food stamps help poor people buy groceries.
The program's cost has more than doubled and enrollment is
up by 20 million people since the 2007-09 recession. Nearly one
in seven Americans receives food stamps, and the average benefit
is $1.50 per meal.
Besides becoming a target for budget-cutters in Congress,
, the program has drawn attention for what
Critics and health advocates point to the use of food stamps
to buy soda and other processed foods that they say can
contribute to health problems like obesity and diabetes, costing
the government more in health coverage later on.
While some lawmakers have called for limits on using food
stamps to buy processed foods, the food industry opposes any
restrictions. The Grocery Manufacturers Association has said
such limits unfairly curb consumer choice and burden companies.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said Wednesday's report shows
"the clear impact that promoting nutritious food choices can
have on improving the healthfulness of SNAP purchases."
Other private and state-based groups have also offered
varying financial incentives to those receiving food assistance,
but many of those efforts are more generous and immediate.
Wholesome Wave, which connects food stamp users and other
aid recipients to farmers' markets, found in its own study last
year that SNAP participants given 100 percent in matching
dollars right at the market bought 80 percent more produce.
"Nutrition incentives work," said Gus Schumacher, the
group's vice president of policy.
It is unclear whether the pilot program, which was funded in
the 2008 farm law, could be expanded. While the U.S. Senate has
passed legislation to renew the law that included funding for
such an effort, the House of Representatives version strips out
food stamp funding altogether.
A final report on the pilot will offer a closer look on
participants' shopping patterns and other details, USDA said.
(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Additional reporting by Charles
Abbott; Editing by Eric Walsh)