A U.S. Department of Agriculture program set to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients in the U.S. is searching for a state to test its plan.

The Healthy Incentives Pilot, authorized by the farm bill, has $20 million to find, run and evaluate a pilot program that would offer a discount on fruit and vegetable purchases through SNAP, formerly known as the food stamp program. If this eventually led to a national program, even a small percentage increase in fruit and vegetable purchases through SNAP could mean big things for the industry, given its $53 billion budget in 2009.

Pilot program seeks to increase produce purchases“Just imagine how much impact it would have if we could redirect more of the $50 billion food stamps to fruits and vegetables.”

- Elizabeth Pivonka, president, Produce for Better Health Foundation

After the authorization of the program in 2008, a group of interested stakeholders —including representatives from academic and research institutions, private industry, federal and state governments, retailer associations, farmers markets and advocates —met to lay the ground work. Now, more than a year after that symposium, the USDA’s Food and Nutrition Service has released a request for application, and interested state SNAP agencies are open to apply to run the pilot.

Produce for Better Health Foundation president Elizabeth Pivonka was part of the 2008 symposium, and continues to follow policy activities, including the program, through her position as co-chair of the National Fruit & Vegetable Alliance.

“Since the 1990s, we advocates have been talking about the idea of incentivizing food stamp recipients via double coupons or discounts, buy-one-get-one, etc., to encourage them to select fruits and vegetables, so I think this pilot program is a huge step in the right direction,” Pivonka said.

The program is set to target fresh, canned, frozen and dried produce, but not juice. It also excludes white potatoes and anything with added sugars, fats, oils or salt. Consumers in the to-be-chosen test market will earn 30% of their fruit and vegetable purchases back as credit in their SNAP benefit accounts through their EBT cards.

To help highlight the savings, register receipts in the test market are planned to print out a running total of fruit and vegetable incentives for each trip and for each month.

“We’ve all been excited about the new fruit and vegetable vouchers in the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) program, representing potentially about half a billion dollars per year spent on fruits and vegetables,” Pivonka said. “Just imagine how much impact it would have if we could redirect more of the $50 billion food stamps to fruits and vegetables.”

The Food and Nutrition Service is encouraging the chosen state to consult and partner with WIC agencies that have experience with retailer and participant training on the purchase of targeted fruits and vegetables. All retailers in the chosen test market should have the option to participate.

“I would hope to see a significant increase in fruit and vegetable consumption for those in this pilot test so that it could be implemented nationally,” Pivonka said. “From what I see in the request for application, the intent is to conduct this one test in such a way that it could be implemented nationally.”

The USDA is expected to award a cooperative agreement by late summer, and is allotting until November 2011 for planning, testing and training.

The operation phase of the pilot would follow, December 2011 until February 2013.

By June 2013, the plan is to have a formal presentation on the pilot’s results presented at the Food and Nutrition Services headquarters.