Federal Incentives For Specialty Crop Consumption, Nutrition Assistance

Yesterday, a House Agriculture Subcommittee explored issues associated with the direct marketing of specialty crops; a brief overview of that hearing is available here.

Today, the House Agriculture Subcommittee on Nutrition took a more specific look at federal programs that are aimed at increasing low-income families’ purchasing power for fruits and vegetables.

The topics of these back-to-back hearings illustrate that lawmakers are paying acute attention to the emerging sector of specialty agriculture and that some policy ideas can serve multiple goals simultaneously: The direct marketing of specialty crops, tied with federal incentives to consume them, can serve a dual public interest aim of reducing hunger and improving nutrition for low income households, while adding support to local farmers.

Nutrition Subcommittee Chairwoman Jackie Walorski (D., Ind.) explained at today’s hearing that, “[T]he 2014 Farm Bill established the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive , or FINI, a $100 million grant program to fund projects across the country to further test incentive strategies to encourage healthier eating among SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, i.e. food stamps] recipients.”

More specifically, Dr. Oran B. Hesterman noted today that, “Our experience implementing healthy food incentives has shown that matching SNAP benefits with incentives for locally and regionally grown fruits and vegetables is a cost-effective way to simultaneously reduce hunger, improve dietary health, and stimulate local food economies in a way that can create new job opportunities.”

A current SNAP recipient, who uses a portion of her federal benefits at a farmers’ market testified today that, “Knowing that a certain allotment of my monthly benefits can be used at the [farmers’] market and will be matched, definitely affects my shopping habits, especially during the summer months when markets are readily accessible and produce is abundant.”

And as remnants from the Great Recession persist, many households are still using SNAP to supplement their nutritional needs; Bloomberg news reported today that, “About 45.4 million Americans, roughly one-seventh of the population, received nutrition aid last October, the most recent month of data. Unemployment was 5 percent that month.”

Beyond the use of SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, Subcommittee Chairman Jim McGovern (D., Mass.) pointed out today that, “And we ought to be thinking about how we can expand these incentive programs even more. During our Subcommittee hearing a few weeks ago, we heard about the growing problem of hunger among veterans and military families. Why not create a Veterans Farmers Market Nutrition Program? Veterans could get vouchers at their local VA clinic to purchase fresh fruit and veggies. And why not encourage VA clinics to hold farmers markets at their facilities? These kinds of incentive programs are not only good for consumers but they’re good for the farmers who grow the food.”

As hunger and nutritionally related health issues persist in the U.S., it seems likely that federal programs involving specialty crop consumption will garner increased attention in the next Farm Bill debate.

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