For Low-Income Families, Healthy Choices Are No Easy Choices

corradobarattaphotos/iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images
corradobarattaphotos/iStock / Getty Images Plus/ Getty Images

In 2008, Congress authorized a test project to determine whether increasing monetary incentives would improve the eating habits and subsequently the overall nutritional health of low-income families. For the study, titled the Healthy Incentives Pilot (HIP), additional financial help was provided to several thousand beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), also known as food stamps, to promote the purchase and consumption of fruits, vegetables and other healthy foods.

Under the program, participating households were allowed an extra 30 cents for every SNAP dollar they were already receiving that could be spent on SNAP-eligible foods and beverages of their choice.

According to an interim report, the initial impact on the participants’ behavior was considerable. On average, families bought 25 percent (worth about $12 per month) more fresh produce than they did before, amounting to roughly a fifth of a cup per day. This may sound miniscule, but it adds up to about six cups of healthy food a month. Still, it remains far below the two servings of fruit and three servings of vegetables per day recommended by the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

When asked about their experience with the HIP program, 70 percent of the participants said that healthier foods had come within their reach due to the extra support. 95 percent said they would like to see the incentives go on indefinitely. However, 40 percent complained that the program had not been well advertised and that they first heard about it long after its inception. They also found it hard (or didn’t know whether it was hard or easy) to understand how it worked and who would be eligible.

This points to a notorious problem with well-intended programs like HIP. They are primarily geared toward audiences that are hard to reach. Many if not most of the potential beneficiaries have no access to the Internet or other media outlets, or have the necessary education to understand complex government programs.

Even long-established aid programs like SNAP that people are familiar with and depend on are under constant threat of being reduced or altogether eliminated, adding to the already widespread food insecurity among the poor in this country. Chances are that in the current political climate HIP will be discontinued, regardless whether it turns out a success or a failure.

In truth, for poor families it will never be easy to make healthier diet and lifestyle choices, no matter how hard they try. Food prices keep rising, supermarkets and grocery stores are absent from many low-income neighborhoods, and people lack basic information about their health needs.

It is one thing to criticize food stamps recipients for buying junk food and sodas that make them overweight and sick — it’s another to offer them realistic alternatives to turn their lot around. Cutting people’s lifelines they desperately need to make it halfway through is certainly not the way to go. If additional incentives can achieve even better results, we should increase instead of end them.

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Timi Gustafson
Timi Gustafson, RD, LDN, FAND, is a clinical dietitian and author of the book, The Healthy Diner: How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun, which is available on her blog, Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.. Follow Timi on Twitter, Facebook, and Google+.