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USDA Attempting To Make SNAP Healthier

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Photo:usdagov/Flickr/Creative Commons License

By now, you probably know the richest one percent of the world's population controls nearly half of the planet's wealth. If you want to get even more extreme, the richest 85 people have the same amount of money as the poorest fifty percent of the population, which totals just about 3.5 billion people. Income equality isn't going away anytime soon. (It's getting worse, actually.) But what about the burgeoning diet gap?

According to a study published in September, over the past decade and change, richer people have had healthier diets than the poor, and that gap is steadily widening. There are plenty of theories as to why this is, everything from an education gap to simple access. But one of the most obvious reasons is the price point. Compare the prices at Whole Foods to Vons and you can see it costs more to eat healthy.

But does it have to?

Earlier this month, the USDA announced a series of grants called the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) which will attempt to provide recipients with better access to healthier foods. The total amount of the grants is $31.5 million, to be parceled out in increments between $100,000 and $500,000 at a time, for:

"[P]ilot projects, multi-year community-based projects, or larger-scale multi-year projects that test strategies to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables by SNAP participants through incentives at the point of purchase."

In other words, plans to get SNAP recipients better access to fruits and vegetables.

(It should also be noted: The news came in conjunction with the announcement that the USDA awarded $52 million in grants that seek to grow organic and local food economies. So, they're handing out money left and right nowadays.)

One of the methods being developed is the "Double Value" idea, which provides SNAP recipients with double the amount of money, as long as they use it at farmers' markets. (The $10 they'd spend at the corner store turns into $20 value if they spend it at farmers' markets.) Los Angeles currently has a few farmers' markets that partake in this program, but the grants will help further spread the concept.

So, just what effect will these changes actually have? Dr. Cindy Leung, who researches public nutrition at USCF, says the FINI is a step in the right direction.

"These changes are a logical next step after the Healthy Incentives Pilot, a $20 million project conducted by the USDA to examine the impact of monetary incentives for fruits and vegetables on the purchasing habits and consumption levels of SNAP participants in a small county in Massachusetts," says Leung. "The HIP showed a favorable impact. It's great to see that the USDA is building upon this pilot study and giving the communities and states flexibility to design their own programs to continue their mission."

But while a move like this is turning the ship in the right direction, it's a pretty big ship we're talking about here, and the waves are treacherous. Accomplishing diet equality isn't going to happen just by throwing a few million at the problem. So what else needs to get done?

"Monetary incentives for fruits and vegetables are one piece of the puzzle," says Leung. "Our research has shown that there might be other strategies too, including limiting the purchase of sugar-sweetened beverages with SNAP benefits, improving the SNAP retailer environment (i.e. requiring stores to carry a minimal amount of healthy foods in order to become a SNAP vendor), providing more nutrition education to SNAP participants, and others."

This is a good first step for the USDA. But there better be a whole lot more to come.

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