Congress has way too much fun with acronyms. The most egregious example in the House right now comes in the form a bill from Democrats Matt Cartwright and Rosa DeLauro. The full name: Vegetables Are Really Important Eating Tools for You. In short, the VARIETY Act. The bill was introduced last week and has since been referred to the House Agriculture Committee.
The use of “eating tools” here seems to be less about using broccoli as a food shovel and more about finding a way to make “food” into two words starting with an E and a T to fit the acronym. Because VARIFY wasn’t going to cut it.
But there’s actually a pretty interesting policy idea behind the quirky name.
The VARIETY Act would basically expand the Massachusetts-based Healthy Initiatives Pilot to all food-stamp (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP) recipients. HIP, which ran in Hampden County from November 2011 to December 2012, set up an incentive system for 7,500 of the county’s SNAP-receiving households to nudge them to buy more fruits and vegetables. For every dollar in SNAP benefits that an enrollee spent during this time on fruits or vegetables, he or she would get 30 cents back. The incentive, which was capped at $60 per household a month, could then be spent on any SNAP-eligible goods. The VARIETY Act’s version would also cap the program, but does not specify an amount.
The HIP incentive worked. The Agriculture Department released an interim report last year that determined that people enrolled in HIP ate 25 percent more fruits and vegetables per day than people who did not participate in the program. And the program overall wasn’t too costly: Households that took advantage of the program between March 2012 and July 2012 received $5.55 in incentives per month on average — nowhere near the cap.
A recent study from Stanford found that if HIP went national, it could increase consumption of fruits and vegetables by a quarter-cup a day on average, doubling the number of adults who meet the federal nutritional guidelines for fruit and vegetables.
With food-stamp benefits having been cut in the last six months, it’s difficult to imagine a bill that would expand benefits making it through Congress. But for the more than 46 million Americans who participate in SNAP, a little push toward fruits and vegetables could go a long way. Even with the legislation’s absurd name.