Mass. Healthy Food Pilot Program Catches Maine Delegation's Attention

Aug 25, 2014

WASHINGTON - Sometimes you have to wonder about the bill titles they think up in Washington:  How about the VARIETY Act?  That’s the "Vegetables Are Really Important Eating Tools For You Act."  But there is an interesting policy proposal behind the awkward title.

What’s behind the bill is the attempt to convince those on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - known as SNAP for short, and otherwise known as food stamps - to eat more healthy foods.  It offers an incentive to do that by giving recipients more benefits each month.

It’s based on a pilot program in Massachusetts where SNAP recipients got an extra 30 cents in SNAP benefits for every $1 they spend on fruits and vegetables. Democratic Congresswoman Chellie Pingree thinks it should go nationwide.

"It’s a great idea," Pingree says. "We have all seen the epidemic going on in childhood obesity and, you know, being overweight in our country. And we know it would really improve our health numbers and our long term costs if we could get people to afford and eat healthier food."

Independent Sen. Angus King says the approach is certainly worth looking at. He says too often lawmakers only look at the immediate cost or savings of a proposal, and not at the long-term impact it may have. He says eating healthier food is simply a good idea."

"Many of the people that get food stamps are also getting Medicaid, so if we cut health care costs for them we are cutting taxes for ourselves. So all around, it’s a pretty good idea."

A recent Stanford University study concluded that if the Massachusetts pilot program went national it would increase the average consumption of fruits and vegetables by a quarter cup among SNAP recipients. That would double the number of adults in the United States meeting federal nutrition guidelines for fruits and vegetables.

Democratic Congressman Mike Michaud says as Congress considers changes to the food stamp program, providing incentives for healthier eating should be considered.
"All options should be on the table as it relates to SNAP. Healthy eating is something that more individuals should do. Unfortunately, when you look at SNAP benefits, those benefits don’t go too far."

Last year the average monthly household SNAP benefit in Maine was just under $235.  There were just over 135,000 households getting benefits, which represents about a quarter million people all together across the state.

Republican Sen. Susan Collins says the proposal should be considered, but she is worried about the cost, and she also wants to make sure the program treats all vegetables fairly. "It seems to me that we also need to focus on making sure that people have the choice of buying any fresh vegetable, including the fresh white potato that has been discriminated against," she says.

Collins has long sought to have potatoes included in federal food programs, such as the Women, Infants and Children program that currently does not include them.  But with food stamp benefits recently cut by Congress, it’s unlikely an expansion could pass this year.

Sen. King says that’s a shame. "I wish Congress were as good at passing laws as it is making up funny names for them," he says.

Pingree says some headway has been made in providing food stamp recipients with access to fresh fruits and vegetables, such as an amendment she authored allowing SNAP to be used at farmers markets.  But she agrees it’s unlikely the VARIETY Act will get any traction in Congress this year.