Paying Food-Stamp Recipients to Eat Healthier Fare

One way to revamp the food-stamp program, which Congress is now debating, is to financially reward those who buy more fruits and veggies.

Shoppers buy vegetables at a local Farmers Market in Annandale, Va.
National Journal
Nancy Cook
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Nancy Cook
Dec. 5, 2013, 7:11 a.m.

On a brisk fall day, 40-year-old Amelia Ojendis boarded the sub­way to travel across the Dis­trict to buy ve­get­ables. Clad in a winter hat and puffy coat, she clutched pa­per coupons and wound her way through the stalls of the farm­ers mar­ket.

She used the coupons to buy two bags of fresh pro­duce like broc­coli and zuc­chini — food that has helped to make her fam­ily health­i­er, she says, es­pe­cially her kids ages 16, 12, 10, and 2. “It ac­tu­ally helped lower their weight,” she ex­plains in Span­ish, as her 12-year-old daugh­ter trans­lates.

Ojendis began buy­ing pro­duce at the farm­ers mar­ket in Columbia Heights after she learned that it ac­cep­ted food stamps, form­ally known as Sup­ple­ment­al Nu­tri­tion As­sist­ance Pro­gram be­ne­fits. But her loc­al mar­ket of­fers an even bet­ter deal than that. It matches Ojendis’s pur­chase of healthy food dol­lar-for-dol­lar, up to $20 per vis­it, thanks to a grant from a Con­necti­c­ut not-for-profit. So if Ojendis spends $10 of her SNAP be­ne­fits on zuc­chini and car­rots one Sat­urday, then the loc­al farm­ers mar­ket gives her an ad­di­tion­al $10 to spend on more fruits and ve­get­ables. “It helps people stretch those lim­ited dol­lars,” says Josh Lev­ine, the mar­ket man­ager at the Columbia Heights Com­munity Mar­ket­place. The pro­gram also helps small loc­al farm­ers by ex­pand­ing their base of cus­tom­ers and boost­ing sales.

Giv­ing low-in­come people more money to spend on healthy food (as well as fin­an­cial in­cent­ives to eat bet­ter) is the brainchild of an un­likely pair: a former gov­ern­ment bur­eau­crat and a James Beard Found­a­tion award-win­ning chef. Gus Schu­mach­er served as an un­der sec­ret­ary of Ag­ri­cul­ture un­der Pres­id­ent Clin­ton and worked on food policy for the World Bank and the state of Mas­sachu­setts. His cofounder, Michel Nis­chan, owns a res­taur­ant in the tony town of West­port, Conn., and fre­quently ap­pears on TV cook­ing shows. Both men come from fam­il­ies of farm­ers.

“There is no ques­tion that the SNAP budget per fam­ily dis­al­lows people from get­ting any­thing healthy on a reg­u­lar basis,” Nis­chan says. “People in un­der­served com­munit­ies want bet­ter food. They just can’t af­ford it.”

To­geth­er, these two launched a not-for-profit in 2007 called Whole­some Wave, ded­ic­ated to help­ing people of all so­cioeco­nom­ic classes eat bet­ter. The group is headquartered in Bridge­port, Conn., a former in­dus­tri­al city along the coast. One year after found­ing the or­gan­iz­a­tion and at the height of the re­ces­sion, the not-for-profit launched a pi­lot pro­gram to give grants to loc­al com­munity cen­ters and farm­ers mar­kets to run a dol­lar-for-dol­lar food-stamp match­ing pro­gram.

Schu­mach­er modeled it after a sim­il­ar pro­gram, which he helped to de­vel­op and launch, that al­lows low-in­come wo­men with in­fants or small chil­dren to spend their gov­ern­ment-backed WIC checks at farm­ers mar­kets in an ef­fort to urge them to eat more nu­tri­tious food. It’s a pro­gram that still con­tin­ues today.

Now, the Whole­some Wave double-value coupon pro­gram, as the founders call it, has ex­pan­ded to 24 states and the Dis­trict of Columbia and is honored at more than 300 farm­ers mar­kets. Donors to the not-for-profit in­clude a num­ber of found­a­tions and oth­er not-for-profits such as New­man’s Own, as well as health in­sur­ance com­pan­ies in­clud­ing Kais­er Per­man­ente and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Mas­sachu­setts, ac­cord­ing to the group’s 2011 IRS doc­u­ments.

Part of think­ing is that it is more cost ef­fect­ive in the long run to give people money to buy healthy food than it is to treat people, years later, for obesity-re­lated health prob­lems.

The suc­cess of the Whole­some Wave pro­gram comes at a time of hand-wringing over the fu­ture of food-stamp fund­ing. Con­gress is hag­gling now over the latest it­er­a­tion of the massive farm bill, which funds SNAP. Few polit­ic­al ob­serv­ers think that Con­gress will add any ad­di­tion­al money to the pro­gram, since the cuts be­ing pro­posed by both Demo­crats and Re­pub­lic­ans range from $4 bil­lion to $10 bil­lion over the next dec­ade.

Already, food stamp re­cip­i­ents saw cuts to the pro­gram in early Novem­ber when ex­tra stim­u­lus fund­ing ex­pired. Many con­ser­vat­ives ar­gue that the food-stamp pro­gram con­tains waste and that some of its func­tions should be taken up by char­it­ies and churches in­stead of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment. Food-stamp pro­ponents like Schu­mach­er worry about any at­tempts to scale back the pro­gram at a time of great need. “The food banks and char­it­ies can­not make up the dif­fer­ence,” he says.

While this de­bate oc­cu­pies law­makers in Wash­ing­ton, the num­ber of people on SNAP re­mains at an all-time high. Forty-sev­en mil­lion people, or one out of every eight fam­il­ies, took ad­vant­age of the food-stamp pro­gram in 2013, dur­ing a slug­gish eco­nomy. An av­er­age fam­ily re­ceives $275 a month in be­ne­fits, while a single per­son re­ceives $133, ac­cord­ing to USDA data.

Whole­some Wave is not the only or­gan­iz­a­tion to hit on the idea of tweak­ing the food-stamp pro­gram to en­cour­age people to buy health­i­er food. The USDA launched a one-year pi­lot pro­gram in Mas­sachu­setts from 2011 to late 2012 to test an­oth­er nov­el idea. It gave some SNAP re­cip­i­ents a re­bate of 30 cents for every SNAP dol­lar spent on fruits and ve­get­ables. The ex­tra money went back on the elec­tron­ic card that people use as a pay­ment meth­od for food stamps. A pre­lim­in­ary USDA eval­u­ation, re­leased in Ju­ly, cast the pro­gram as a huge suc­cess. SNAP re­cip­i­ents re­por­ted a 25 per­cent in­crease in their con­sump­tion of fruits and ve­get­ables largely be­cause they said the re­bate made this food more af­ford­able.

Pro­fess­or Di­ane Whit­more Schan­zen­bach of the Hamilton Pro­ject wants to take this idea even fur­ther. In a new re­search pa­per, she ad­voc­ates that the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment should give re­bates to all SNAP re­cip­i­ents for healthy pur­chases at any gro­cery store, not just farm­ers mar­kets. “A really im­port­ant piece of this is that people can buy food where they nor­mally shop,” she says.

Still, these in­nov­at­ive pro­grams rep­res­ent a tiny frac­tion of all of the food stamps be­ing re­deemed in Amer­ica. The Whole­some Wave double-value coupon pro­gram serves 40,000 people at a cost of roughly $1.7 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to the not-for-profit’s latest data, where­as the USDA’s SNAP helps to feed 47 mil­lion Amer­ic­ans at a cost of close to $70 bil­lion dol­lars.

Back at the Columbia Heights farm­ers mar­ket, Ojendis fin­ishes her shop­ping. A nearby couple de­bates which type of squash to buy. Farm­ers, bundled in fleece and hats, sell apples, to­ma­toes, and herbs.

The double-value coupon pro­gram has been so pop­u­lar at this par­tic­u­lar mar­ket that the Whole­some Wave grant could not keep up with de­mand. The mar­ket ran through its $8,000 by the end of Septem­ber, yet it con­tin­ued to give people like Ojendis ex­tra cash to buy fruits and ve­get­ables through loc­al private dona­tions, raised for the hol­i­day sea­son.

By eat­ing bet­ter, Ojendis hopes that she, her kids, and her hus­band, who works as a cook, will not face health prob­lems. Already, they’ve shif­ted their di­ets by cut­ting out white bread and eat­ing ve­get­ables for din­ner. “This has changed the way we eat,” Ojendis says, be­fore she walks back to­ward the metro and re­turns home with her two gro­cery bags burst­ing with fresh pro­duce.

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