Coupons appear to work better than pure price discounts in spurring fruit and vegetable consumption, according to a new U.S. Department of Agriculture study.

Coupons have advantage in boosting produce demand

The USDA Economic Research Service study could have implications for government food assistance programs. It shows that coupons help make fresh produce more affordable, but also educate consumers. This dual benefit, the study said, helps coupons boost fruit and vegetable consumption and perform better than just a drop in price.

“Assuming a coupon usage rate of 10% to 50%, lowering prices through a ‘10% off’ coupon would increase average weekly fruit and vegetable quantities purchased by 2% to 11%, as compared with a 5%- to 6%-effect for a pure price discount,” the study found.

The study compared various usage rates of coupons when looking at the demand response. A 10% coupon, according to the study, would increase the quantity purchased by 2% for fruits and 2.1% for vegetables. Meanwhile, a 30% usage rate would translate to a 6% volume gain for fruits and a 6.5% gain for vegetables.

A 50% coupon usage rate would spur a 10% effect on quantity sold for both fruits and vegetables, according to the study.

The study, compiled with 2004 data, said that even if fruit and vegetable consumption increased 10%, as projected in the highest coupon usage rate, U.S. per capita intake of fruits and vegetables would still account for just 65% of current government recommendations.

“What’s important about this study is that couponing works,” said Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association. She said the study also noted the success of vouchers for fruits and vegetables at farmers’ markets.

The study did not have access to the redemption rates for fruit and vegetable vouchers in the Women, Infant and Children program. Those vouchers have a redemption rate of near 91%, and DiSogra said the USDA could use that higher redemption rate in the WIC program to model further studies on how coupons with deep discounts — or offering free fruits and vegetables — trigger greater demand for fresh produce.

DiSogra said the USDA study could help inform the creation of the USDA’s pending Healthy Incentives Pilot projects that will test the use of coupons and other methods to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables in federal programs. The 2008 farm bill allocated $20 million for the pilot project.

The USDA ERS study should help build a case for providing financial incentives for fruit and vegetable purchases in the next farm bill, DiSogra said.