Here’s the Strangest-Named Piece of Legislation in Congress

It actually contains a pretty intriguing idea.

National Journal
Matt Berman
June 24, 2014, 8:36 a.m.

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.

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