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
Add to Briefcase
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.

What We're Following See More »
Report: Kelly Calls Trump “Uninformed”
1 hours ago

"White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly told Democratic lawmakers Wednesday that the United States will never construct a physical wall along the entire stretch of the U.S.-Mexico border and that some of President Trump’s campaign promises on immigration were 'uninformed.'”

Mueller’s Team Scrutinizing Russian Embassy Transactions
2 hours ago
Bannon’s Attorney Passed Along Questions to White House
2 hours ago

"Steve Bannon’s attorney relayed questions, in real time, to the White House during a House Intelligence Committee interview of the former Trump chief strategist" on Tuesday. "Bannon’s attorney Bill Burck was asking the White House counsel’s office by phone whether his client could answer the questions. He was told by that office not to discuss his work on the transition or in the White House."

Jack Gerard Stepping Down from API
2 hours ago

"The top lobbyist for the U.S. oil-and-gas industry is stepping down after 10 years on the job. Jack Gerard, the president and CEO of the American Petroleum Institute, sent an email to his staff on Wednesday morning saying that he decided not to seek another five-year contract with the nation’s largest oil-and-gas industry trade association."

CBC, Judiciary Committee Dems Move to Censure Trump
3 hours ago

Welcome to National Journal!

You are currently accessing National Journal from IP access. Please login to access this feature. If you have any questions, please contact your Dedicated Advisor.