It starts by providing more benefits when members buy healthier foods.
Credit: Adobe: Chris

Over the last year, there have been a few changes to the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program—otherwise known as SNAP—including a reduction in budgets for benefits used at the farmers' market. But if researchers at Harvard University and Tufts University had their way, the $70-billion-per-year SNAP program would actually reward Americans for buying more fresh vegetables and fruits, and many other nutritious groceries.

According to a report from the Boston Globe, a team of researchers between the two renowned universities devised a plan to improve the health of SNAP benefit members, and to reduce billions of dollars in federal healthcare costs. Modeling the effects of a few of their ideas within three different scenarios, the researchers found that one plan had the best effect on reducing costs while improving health quality—they're calling it "SNAP-Plus."

Under this plan, beneficiaries would be incentivised to buy better-for-you staples like nuts, whole grains, fish, plant-based oils and products, fruits, and vegetables—and simultaneously penalized when choosing to buy items like processed meats, junk food, sodas and other high-sugar beverages.

When buying healthier items, the researchers said $0.30 out of every dollar could be returned to the user's EBT card—giving them more to spend. Should a recipient want to purchase unhealthy foods, they'd be able to—but s/he would pay $.30 more per dollar.

Their plan was published earlier this week in the journal PLOS Medicine, and the team hopes that their findings inspire state pilot programs to test SNAP-Plus individually.

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These researchers studied upwards of 14.5 million Americans who are currently receiving SNAP benefits and estimated that implementing their program could reduce healthcare costs by upwards of $42 billion. They also estimated that the change could prevent 940,000 cardiovascular events, including heart attacks and strokes, which could further reduce the strain on federal healthcare.

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“About one in seven Americans participate in SNAP, a crucial and effective program to reduce hunger. Our results suggest that SNAP can also be a powerful lever to improve nutrition, reduce major diseases, and lower healthcare spending,” said Dr. Dariush Mozaffarian, lead researcher on the study, and dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts, in an official statement.

In the same scholarly journal, PLOS Medicine, a pair of experts published commentary that supports creating a program that rewards healthy groceries over convenience items. Dr. Hilary Kessler Seligman of the University of California, San Francisco and Dr. Sanjay Basu of Stanford University said that SNAP-Plus could help tackle an "unhealthy food system."

“These programs, including vouchers to support fruit and vegetable purchases, healthy food procurement policies, and workplace bans on sugar-sweetened beverage sales, have generally been under-researched,” the doctors’ wrote in their commentary.

Both Seligman and Basu said they believe that SNAP won't be changed in major ways with a current bill passing through Congress—but they also hope that individual states will take new research into account to implement local programs if possible.

The Hill reports that the SNAP program is approved every five years under the federal Farm Bill, which happened to expire this month. There are talks currently to re-authorize the legislature, but there's also some debate over new proposed additions—including the possibility of requiring SNAP beneficiaries to work regularly—that is stalling a renewal.