A first-ever program designed to encourage greater fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income consumers will begin in Hampden County, Mass., in the fall of 2011.

“Increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, especially in the place of higher-calorie foods, can help move America towards healthier lifestyles and a healthier future,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release.

The Healthy Incentives Pilot program is funded with a $20-million allocation from the 2008 farm bill to research the effectiveness of incentives to boost produce consumption among consumers receiving federal nutrition assistance.

The program will give 7,500 random households 30 cents for every dollar spent on fresh fruits and vegetables using Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamp) Electronic Benefit Transfer cards.

Lorelei DiSogra, vice president of nutrition and health for the Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association, said original expectations were that the pilot’s success would lead to its expansion under the next farm bill. Unless the farm bill is delayed, however, that likely will not happen, she said.

Still, she said the pilot should help determine how food stamp program incentives work.

DiSogra said she is pleased with support from USDA officials who "seem to imply that current USDA leadership is already thinking if these results are positive that there is place for them in policy around food stamps."

Kathy Means, vice president of government relations and public relations for the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association, said the pilot could show how discounts affect private-sector purchases as well.

With USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service providing oversight, Abt Associates Inc., Cambridge, Mass., is the independent contractor evaluating the pilot and the feasibility of implementing it nationwide.