Thursday, August 19, 2010

USDA Announces Pilot Program To Subsidize Fruit And Vegetables, Track Impact

New study fulfills recommendation from Let's Move! report
Today, as President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama began a ten-day vacation in Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that the state will be receiving $20 million to run a pilot program that both subsidizes fruit and vegetables for low-income households and monitors its impact on improving eating habits and reducing obesity rates.

The project fulfills a recommendation in the action-plan Report from the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity, which was created when Mrs. Obama launched the Let's Move! campaign in February.

Titled the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), the project will enroll 7,500 randomly selected households that receive benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, also referred to as Food Stamps) in Hampden County, Mass. For every dollar participants spend on fruits and vegetables using their SNAP Electronic Benefit Transfer cards, 30 cents will be added to their benefit balance - thus cutting the cost of fruits and vegetables by almost one-third, according to USDA.

In a statement, Sec. Vilsack said the HIP will "empower low-income Americans to eat more nutritious food and has the potential to strengthen the SNAP program that serves as a critical safety net."

The households receiving the subsidy will be tracked for 15 months by Abt Associates, Inc. of Cambridge, Mass., an independent contractor selected by Sec. Vilsack to evaluate HIP.

“It’s one of the largest in the history of the Food and Nutrition Service, not only in terms of the size of the pilot, but the rigor associated with the evaluation,’’ Kevin Concannon, USDA's undersecretary for food, nutrition, and consumer services, told Boston Globe today about the HIP. “We have a lot of information on nutrition, we have a lot of information on health, but we have a lot less information on what influences behavior.’’

Let's Move! and subsidies for fruit & vegetables
One crucial goal of Let's Move! is dramatically boosting the consumption of fruits and vegetables, and recommendation 4.8 in the Report from the Task Force on Childhood Obesity reads "Demonstrate and evaluate the effect of targeted subsidies on purchases of healthy food through nutrition assistance programs." The topic is discussed in depth on page 59 of the Report. The campaign's goal of making healthy foods more affordable is also targeted by the HIP. (Above: Mrs. Obama, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, and HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius during the Report's unveiling)

"To encourage children to eat healthier, we’re setting a goal to increase the amount of fruits that children consume to 75 percent of the recommended level by 2015," Mrs. Obama said when unveiling the Report in May. "We want to increase that again to 85 percent by the year 2020, and then by the year 2030 we hope to be at 100 percent." The campaign has similar goals for vegetable consumption.

The HIP begins to fulfill the Task Force Report's recommendation, and will also help federal officials determine if subsidizing produce is actually a workable public policy solution. People may well not want to eat more fruit and vegetables no matter what the price point. Go here to download the full Report; a rapid-fire ObFo recap is here.

Massachusetts will begin operating the pilot in the fall of 2011, and the funding comes from the 2008 Farm Bill. Hampden County is a mix of 27 urban, rural, and suburban cities with a total of 50,000 SNAP households, with the majority concentrated in the areas of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee. The state was selected based on its comprehensive pilot proposal that included very thorough and strong design, implementation, staffing and management plans, according to USDA.

Massachusetts was also formerly the home of Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Kathleen Merrigan, and President Obama has been campaigning for Governor Deval Patrick, who faces a tough re-elction challenge in 2010.

The news of the project made the bottom of the front page of the Boston Globe, but was announced with little fanfare by USDA, other than a press release.

Related: Dems and hunger activists are currently worried that funding for the child nutrition legislation--another goal of Let's Move!--will be funded by cuts in the SNAP program, which was already cut when President Obama signed a $26 billion aid bill on August 10.

*Top photo via Getty; second by Obama Foodorama