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In the United States, 47 million people participate in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) to ensure they have enough food on their table.

To make their food dollars stretch further, they frequently grab the first thing they see on the shelf that’s on sale and satisfies their family’s preferences. Unfortunately, these alternatives are typically higher in fat, sugar and salt. As a consequence, many of America’s poor are overweight and unhealthy.

In 2014, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) released a study that explored incentives designed to encourage SNAP participants to make healthier food choices. Allison Karpyn, formerly of The Food Trust and now serving as associate director for the University of Delaware’s Center for Research in Education and Social Policy (CRESP), was a co-author of the report.

Goal of the study

The USDA study brought together representatives from the SNAP program, grocery stores, food manufacturers, behavioral economists and government experts to identify ways to incentivize people to buy healthier foods.

“We wanted to develop mechanisms that were low-cost, effective and easy to implement for both the shoppers and the stores. We were looking for carrots, instead of sticks. This was important, to encourage participation of the stakeholders and positively affect people’s shopping habits,” said Karpyn.

The consortium collaborated to identify six possibilities, ranging from offering discounts on healthy food to designing a segmented shopping cart, much like the USDA’s Healthy Eating Plate. The top two alternatives are now under review for pilot testing.

Spotlight healthy foods

One of the more promising initiatives is based on a simple marketing premise. If grocery stores place healthier foods in more prominent locations, customers are more likely to purchase them.

By using better lighting, more attractive displays or prominent placement on end-caps, stores can increase demand for nutritious food. Shoppers in a hurry are more prone to select food that is at eye-level.

Stores could also offer sales, like “buy one, get one free,” that would help stretch the budget of cost-conscious consumers.

Coupon program

Another approach is to encourage manufacturers to offer discount coupons to SNAP participants through a USDA managed channel. SNAP participants who purchase healthy foods, would earn credits to buy more food at the end of the month.

“Providing a means for distributing coupons to lower income households participating in SNAP is a potential ‘win-win-win’ intervention that could boost participation,” said Karpyn.

Follow-up Results

In 2011-2012, a cluster-randomized controlled trial was conducted in eight urban supermarkets in low-income, high-minority neighborhoods. The goal was to evaluate manager and customer reactions to stealth, low-cost, sustainable in-store marketing strategies to promote healthier purchases.

Of the five intervention product categories (milk, read-to-eat cereal, in-aisle beverages, checkout cooler beverages and frozen food), shoppers who responded to the survey said they were most likely to try a new or different type of beverage (mean =3.28 on a scale of 1=not likely to 5=most likely), followed by frozen dinners, cereal and milk.

 Full report to be available in the Journal of Food Research in 2016.


The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is also taking a look at the nutrition labels on foods in an attempt to make them simpler to read and easier to use to make healthy choices. And Congress drafted (but has not voted upon) the Food Labeling Modernization Act of 2013, which advocates for a single simple, symbol system to facilitate consumer selection of healthy product options, including among nutritionally at-risk subpopulations.