Carrots for Carrots: The U.S. Congress approves $100 million for healthy eating

By Alex Canepa.

In the midst of the acrimony surrounding the U.S. Congress’ decision to cut upwards of $8 billion from the SNAP (food stamp) program in the 2014 Farm Bill, many observers missed a significant new departure in American food policy - financial incentive for healthy eating.

The Farmers Market SNAP Incentive Program enacts at the federal level a successful pilot program in the state of Michigan that allows SNAP recipients to double the value of their benefits if they shop at farmers markets. For instance, a low-income family could spend $40 on processed food at a supermarket or $80 on fruits, vegetable and meat at their local market.

The strategy embodied in by SNAP incentives - enticing people into healthy eating - stands in contrast to efforts by New York City’s former mayor Michael Bloomberg and the Mexican federal government to tax junk food. The two approaches, the carrot and the stick respectively, beg a more simple question: should governments provide financial incentives for their citizens to eat healthful foods or impose “sin taxes” similar to those placed on tobacco and alcohol in order to dissuade them from upgrading to supersize fries?

While behavioral economists will continue to wrangle over whether the carrot or the stick is more effective in influencing people’s choices, two things are clear. First, it is becoming increasingly apparent that governments will need to start pricing the negative externalities associated with junk food into their budgets. While some conservatives decry a nanny state that, so the caricature goes, “forces its citizens to eat their vegetables,” when the U.S. government is spending nearly $100 billion per year treating obesity-related conditions, it is the government’s business how healthy its citizens are.

Secondly, the fracas following Mayor Bloomberg and Mexico’s soda taxes juxtaposed with the low-key passage of SNAP incentives indicates that the carrot is more politically palatable than the stick. In a Congress more divided by partisanship than at any point in living memory, SNAP incentives actually garnered bipartisan support.    

The political calculus is almost as simple as the economic calculus. Paying people to shop at farmers markets not only wins the approval of SNAP recipients but farmers as well. Michigan farmers - the first to reap the benefits of the program - report far outselling farmers in neighboring states without SNAP incentive programs:

Furthermore, farmer surveys reveal encouraging evidence that the economic benefits of incentive programs are real. 83% of Michigan farmers say they make more money at farmers markets with SNAP incentives and 92% report selling more fruits and vegetables.

If America can recoup its expenditure on financial incentives for healthy eating in the form of lower medical bills and economic stimulus for farmers, the carrot rather than the stick will be the way of the future in America’s war on obesity.

Alex Canepa is studying for an MSc. Candidate in the History of Medicine, Science and Technology

Photo of the Downtown Des Moines Farmers' Market: Phil Roeder, Flickr

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