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Can Financial Incentives Lead to Healthier Food Purchases?

Millions of low-income individuals and families rely on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to get adequate amounts of food. SNAP is the largest domestic program to combat hunger. But would this population respond to financial incentives to buy healthier food? An Abt Global evaluation found that a SNAP pilot program’s incentives to encourage the purchase of fruit and vegetables produced a significant increase in spending and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

“Abt Global’s evaluations have contributed to improvements in a range of federal programs,” said Susan Bartlett, Abt Principal Associate and study director. “Continuing this tradition, our SNAP evaluation used random assignment and other tools to determine that additional SNAP funds encouraged program recipients to eat measurably more fruit and vegetables.”

The Power of Incentives
The Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008 authorized and funded pilot projects to determine if SNAP financial incentives would increase consumption of fruits and vegetables.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service, using this authority, created the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP). HIP provided SNAP participants with an additional 30 cents for every SNAP dollar spent on targeted fruits and vegetables at participating retailers. The pilot was carried out in Hampden County, Massachusetts between November 2011 and December 2012.

Targeted fruits and vegetables (TFVs) included fresh, canned, frozen, and dried fruits and vegetables without added sugars, fats, oils, or salt. White potatoes and 100 percent fruit juice were excluded. The 30 cents per dollar incentive was immediately credited back to the participants’ electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to be spent on any SNAP-eligible foods and beverages.

Increased Vegetable Consumption and Spending

Abt’s analysis of HIP found that: 

The Mixed Influence of Food Deserts
A spatial analysis conducted as part of the HIP evaluation found some evidence that a SNAP household’s distance to food retailers was associated with its level of TFV spending in participating supermarkets.

SNAP households that lived farther away from a HIP participating supermarket spent 69 cents less on TFVs each month for each additional mile of travel to the nearest supermarket.

However, the analysis found no evidence that the distance to food retailers affected the impact of HIP on fruit and vegetable outcomes.

“There is some relationship between supermarket access and how much you spend on fruits and vegetables, but the impact of the HIP incentive was more or less similar across different food retail environments,” said Todd Grindal, lead author of the spatial analysis and Associate at Abt.

Read more about this work: 
Journal article: Explaining the Impact of USDA's Healthy Incentives Pilot on Different Spending Outcomes
Policy Brief: Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP) Evaluation
Evaluation of the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP): Final Report
Evaluation of the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP): Spatial Analysis Report 

Read more about Abt’s work in food assistance and nutrition in the U.S.:
Food Assistance Programs and Nutrition Research and Evaluation: Supporting Strategies for Improved Food Security 

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