Even with the increasing challenges of food costs, one of the great gaps in U.S. nutrition programs is in the lack of fruits and vegetables for those of modest means. The recently passed farm bill will fall far short of addressing the issues, but nonprofit sectors could seize Congress’ failures as a chance to begin innovating.
The food stamps program, which is part of the farm bill, provides basic support but doesn’t offer any incentives for buying healthy fruits and vegetables instead of, say, soda and chips. One idea, which didn’t make it into the farm bill, would be to give food stamp recipients double credit on their electronic shopping cards for fruits and vegetables, but only half for the junk.
A progressive New York City group has come up with money to try out a version of the bonus for fruits and vegetables. The Humpty Dumpty Institute (“putting the pieces back together”) is helping some upstate New York farmers markets provide $5 coupons to food stamp recipients for every $5 spent on fruits and vegetables at the markets.
The idea of penalties for less-healthy purchases would give pause to some people (and some special interests). As numerous studies have shown, however, the demand for a healthy diet is strong among poor shoppers. But economic factors often squeeze them into high-calorie, low-cost choices heavy on corn syrup, fats and tongue-twisting laboratory concoctions. As a result, lower-income Americans face seriously disproportionate rates of obesity, diabetes and circulatory problems. The concerns are real on every shopping trip, creating an urgent need for new thinking.
The private financing of bonus coupons is an excellent way to experiment with solutions quickly. Chris Curtis of Seattle’s Neighborhood Farmers Market Alliance said, “It would be difficult for our organization to carry that cost, but if there was some match from the state or public health or some organization that would see the benefit, that would be great.” Trying out the bonuses on a broader scale would be a good way to begin judging whether they ought to be incorporated into the food stamp program nationally when the farm bill comes up for reauthorization in 2012.
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