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Low-Income Households Buy More Fruits, Vegetables Thanks to Financial Incentives

Analysis  |  By Jack O'Brien  
   September 03, 2019

Researchers found that study participants increased spending on fruits and vegetables by 27%.

Financially incentivized shoppers increased their spending on fruits and vegetables by more than 25% according to a study published in Health Affairs Tuesday afternoon. 

In a pool of 600 low-income households in rural Maine, half received a 50% discount on fruits and vegetables at Hannaford Supermarkets, leading to a 27% increase in spending on fruits and vegetables per week. As noted in the study, one-third of overall participants were enrolled in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).

While there was not an increase in purchases of "less healthful foods," researchers were unable to report an increase in fruit and vegetable consumption by participants.

Alyssa Moran, an assistant professor at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told HealthLeaders that the study's findings support the idea that financial incentives can shape consumer buying patterns and potentially assist in addressing social determinants of health (SDOH). 

"The key takeaway from this study is that when you provide people with additional money to purchase healthy foods, they purchase more of them. This may not be surprising but shows that these types of financial incentive programs, like those administered through SNAP, have a positive impact on health," Moran said. "This type of financial incentive program could be scaled out to reach more people by financing these kinds of programs through the healthcare system."

Addressing the SDOH has been a growing focus for healthcare organizations, who are seeking ways to assist patients with resources that proactively address diseases and prevent chronic conditions from worsening. 

In February, Health Care Service Corp. and the Blue Cross Blue Shield Institute announced plans to provide easier access to nutritious, affordable food to those living in 'food deserts' in Chicago and Dallas. 

Related: BCBS Pilot Targets Chicago, Dallas 'Food Deserts' for Affordable Meals

Meanwhile, ridesharing company Lyft announced in April that it would be expanding its grocery access program in order to battle food deserts in more than a dozen American cities.

Related: Lyft Expands Grocery Access Program to Combat 'Food Deserts'

Drawing off her previous clinical work, Moran said dietitians often feel "helpless" to address some of the SDOH facing their patients, such as aiding with a diet change or other measures to better manage a disease.

She said that financial incentive programs can empower providers to do more for their patients and address the root causes of why patients are coming into the office in the first place.

Moran did highlight nutrition education as an area for improvement, saying there was only a 12% attendance for the in-store education portion of the study. 

Still, Moran said that integrating financial incentives into a primary care intervention can better ensure that people are getting some kind of education or counseling around nutrition and diet. 

"I would say that this [study] adds to what is a growing body of literature that shows us these incentives for healthy food work," Moran said. "We should be thinking about how we can scale these programs out and make them appealing to other payers, like insurance companies or accountable care organizations."

Jack O'Brien is the Content Team Lead and Finance Editor at HealthLeaders, an HCPro brand.

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