Research Activities, January 2014

Behavioral incentives can help nutritional assistance program recipients make healthier food choices

Disparities/Minority Health

Obesity rates continue to rise, especially in children. In addition, lower-income individuals have a disproportionately higher rate of obesity. Formerly known as the Food Stamps Program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is one way to improve nutrition in this group. However, it was not designed to encourage recipients to eat healthier.

In a recent paper, researchers propose innovative changes in SNAP to help combat rising obesity rates. Their three new delivery options are based on behavioral economic insights and encourage SNAP recipients to select higher-quality foods. The first proposal involves rewarding healthy purchases with more SNAP funds in the form of cash-back incentives for qualifying foods. This has already been piloted in Massachusetts.

Photograph shows a woman shopping for groceries. The researchers propose that the extra funds be added to the electronic benefits transfer card in the following month. This would foster more healthy purchases in later months. A maximum reward would be set. Recipients would need to maintain a preset level of purchases in order to keep their maximum bonus award.

A second proposal uses raffles that SNAP recipients can enter and win prizes after a specific number of qualifying purchases. Prizes would include such things as healthy cooking classes, cooking equipment, gym memberships, and family activities. The third proposal would help individuals resist temptations to purchase unhealthy foods in the store. It involves selecting foods from a list and then having the store fill the order for quick pick up or home delivery. Grocery home delivery is starting to get some traction in some low-income areas of New York City, but this is not linked with behavioral economic interventions.

These three proposals can encourage the consumption of nutritious foods while at the same time fostering more ideas that can make SNAP a healthier program, suggest the authors. Their study was supported in part by AHRQ (HS17589).

See "Rewarding healthy food choices in SNAP: Behavioral economic applications," by Michael R. Richards, Ph.D. (cand.) and Jody L. Sindelar, Ph.D., in The Millbank Quarterly 91(2), pp. 395-412, 2013.


Page last reviewed January 2014
Internet Citation: Behavioral incentives can help nutritional assistance program recipients make healthier food choices. January 2014. Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, Rockville, MD.