Incentives and restrictions on food assistance programs are a winning combination, according to recent findings that link strict food voucher regulations to a healthier diet.
Published in JAMA Internal Medicine, this study compared various strategies for improving the Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program, often referred to as SNAP. SNAP, formerly known as the Food Stamp program, was first started in the 1960s to combat hunger and provide funds to low-income families for food purchases. While SNAP helps 1 in 7 Americans afford the food they need, experts worry that it allows for unhealthy food choices that contribute to obesity and chronic disease.
To address this issue, experts tested four different food programs among low-income families in the Minnesota metropolitan area. The first program included a 30% incentive on fruit and vegetable purchases, the second restricted the purchase of unhealthy items like candy, baked desserts and sugar-sweetened beverages, and the third included both the incentive and restriction. The fourth program had no incentives or restrictions, so that it could be compared to the above strategies.
Between 2013 and 2015, a total of 279 adults participated in the study. All were randomly assigned to one of the four programs for three months. After comparing dietary info from the beginning and end of the study, researchers found that the program with incentives and restrictions was most effective in improving diet.
Compared to the control group, participants in the incentive and restriction program reduced their daily calorie consumption, as well as their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, sweet baked goods and candy. They also improved their overall diet during the study period, based on positive changes in their healthy eating score.
Authors note that while some dietary outcomes also improved in the incentive- or restriction-only groups, improvements were not as significant as the combination group.
While findings support a combination approach for promoting healthier diets, implementing changes for the SNAP program remains a challenge, according to experts. Recently, many states submitted requests to place restrictions on SNAP purchases, like restricting the purchase of sugary drinks with SNAP funds. The U.S. Department of Agriculture rejected the requests, arguing that it would increase program complexity and may not actually improve overall diets.
The good news is that this study provides evidence that refutes their argument, showing that incentives and restrictions can promote a healthier diet. Thus, experts hope that study findings will help bring about change within the SNAP program, which will ultimately help improve participants’ health and lifestyle choices.