National Editor Tom Karst
National Editor Tom Karst

A record number of American households are on food stamps, as the Drudge Report faithfully reminded me this morning in his constantly updated collection of distressing headlines.

U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show that the 23.08 million households received food stamps in January 2013, up about 4.1% from January 2012.

Imagine if the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program created incentives for participants to eat according to dietary guidelines? That would touch about one in five American households.

In speculating about the “what if?” scenario, it is helpful to understand the current diets of food stamp participants.

In this respect, a new study from the U.S. Department of Agriculture helps to paint a picture of how the diets of SNAP participants currently compare with the diets of other low-income consumers who do not participate in the program.

According to the study, authored by economist Christian Gregory, participation in SNAP increases the likelihood that recipients will eat whole fruit, and leads to a modest decrease in the consumption of dark green and orange vegetables. The study found that food stamp participants were 23% more likely to consume whole fruit when they receive SNAP benefits than when they do not.

The finding about the decrease in vegetable consumption is disappointing. The USDA ERS concludes that what are called “modest declines” in the consumption of dark green and orange vegetables may be related to time constraints of the working poor. That may include, of course, the preparation time required for the foods before consumption.

Agriculture Undersecretary for Food, Nutrition and Consumers Services Kevin Concannon said in a press conference April 24 that all Americans need improvement in their diet. That improvement should come with increased consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains and low-fat dairy. Consumers also need less fat, sweet beverages and sodium, he said.

Concannon said a major focus of the Obama administration has been to increase nutrition education to SNAP participants and access to healthy foods. He cited the USDA’s MyPlate symbol and the agency’s online SuperTracker diet guide.

More substantive, no doubt, is the increased acceptance of food stamps at farmers’ markets. More than 3,200 farmers’ markets in the U.S. can accept SNAP benefits, an increase of 100% since 2010. The U.S. has a total of about 7,000 farmers’ markets, so more work remains to be done to make food stamp benefits work in all those markets, he said.

The USDA also is interested in reducing food deserts for low income households, Concannon said.

“We continue our work that will help make the healthy choice the easier choice across the country,” he said in the press conference.

He noted that USDA has conducted pilot projects to test the concept of providing participant incentives for healthy food purchases.

In a follow up, I asked Concannon about the results from those incentive-based pilots promote fruit and vegetable consumption in the food stamp program. He said the USDA will release the results of their Healthy Incentive Pilot in May. That pilot was conducted over a one-year period in western Massachusetts.

He declined to provide details from the pilot, but hinted that the agency may be looking at the pilot for methods the agency could use to motivate participants to eat healthier.

Not related to the pilot, another approach might be to beef up requirements to stock more healthy food at the 250,000 retailers who redeem SNAP benefits. About 80% of stores who redeem food stamp benefits are well-provisioned grocery stores or big box stores, but 20% are smaller retailers, he said. “USDA is very interested in strengthening the range of healthy foods in smaller stores,” he said.

Unfortunately, in my view, Concannon said that he would hesitate to support restricting purchases of unhealthy food by SNAP participants.

That’s a mistake. If the government is looking for serious results and increased consumption of orange and dark green vegetables, the approach should be two-pronged.

Yes, give 23 million households in the SNAP program incentives or “bonus bucks” to purchase fresh produce and other healthy food. At the same time, USDA should pilot the results of limiting purchases of junk food purchases with food stamp benefits. SNAP participants can always purchase pop with other funds, if they are so motivated.

For those who find themselves needful of the SNAP program, restrictions on junk food purchases seem a small sacrifice for a generous public benefit. For Congress and the agency who runs the program, the two-pronged approach of creating incentives for healthy food and restricting empty calories makes sense for America.