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Will shoppers on food stamps pick up fresher foods?

February 16, 2016 at 6:40 PM EDT
The U.S. government wants to steer the 46 million Americans who receive food stamps toward healthier food choices. The USDA plans to require retailers that accept those benefits to stock more fresh foods. But would healthier options change behavior? Gwen Ifill talks to Yael Lehmann, executive director of the Food Trust.

GWEN IFILL: The official unemployment rate may have just fallen to under 5 percent, but food stamps remain a pivotal part of daily life for millions of Americans; 46 million people, or about one of every seven Americans, receive food stamps.

Now the government wants to steer them toward healthier food choices. The USDA plans to require retailers who accept food stamps to stock more fresh fruits, vegetables, meat, poultry and fish. The stores would have to stock at least 168 items the government considers healthy.

But would healthier options necessarily change behavior?

We explore this with Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Food Trust in Philadelphia, a not-for-profit organization that works to ensure healthier eating alternatives.

Welcome, Ms. Lehmann.

So, why — what is the reasoning behind forcing retailers to stock healthier foods?

YAEL LEHMANN, Executive Director, The Food Trust: Well, I think the USDA has good intentions here and it’s a good goal, right? We want all people, including low-income people who are on SNAP, or formally called food stamps, to have access to affordable and nutritious foods.

We want to make sure oranges are just as accessible to them as orange soda, for example, when they go to the convenience store. But we want to make sure — we also want to make sure that we’re supporting the retailers in this case, so that they learn how to stock these items. And we know it can be possible. It can be done. We just want to make sure it’s done in a way that there is no unintended harmful consequences to the retailer or to the customer.

GWEN IFILL: So, when you say stock these items, do these retailers get a list of the kinds of items or the specific items they should have in stock at all times?

YAEL LEHMANN: That’s my understanding, is that USDA would offer a list.

This is a — again, this is a proposed policy change, and I think that, over our many years, we have worked for over 10 years now to help folks who run convenience stores to stock healthier items. We know it can be done, but that they need assistance, they need training in some cases.

In some cases, they’re not familiar with stocking certain items like produce. So, yes, if we give them a list, let’s make sure that we can help them be successful and be able to pick the items on that list that are going to sell and are going to be popular with their customers.

GWEN IFILL: As a business proposition, is this something that’s sustainable for the corner grocery store, the corner bodega, which may not even have the storage space or the refrigeration for those kinds of items?

YAEL LEHMANN: It’s true there are certain challenges, and that’s another thing that we want to think about when we’re considering this proposed change that USDA has put out there.

Some of the retailers don’t have refrigeration or they don’t have the place to stock these certain items. At The Food Trust, the organization that I’m the executive director of, we work with the retailers to help them find refrigerators and to show them how to stock these foods.

We want to make sure, again, that they have the proper ways to stock these items and to make them look attractive and to be stored correctly, you know, so that — and priced correctly, so that it’s as accessible and affordable as possible and attractive as possible to their customers, so that they can be successful.

And we know it can be done. We have seen retailers over the years do very well with this, but they need some help out of the gate.

GWEN IFILL: Well, so the onus is put on the retailer.

What about the behavior of the consumer? How do you know that just merely putting the oranges on the shelf won’t make the person who’s buying with food stamps reach for orange soda if the food stamps will cover it? What changes the behavior?

YAEL LEHMANN: Well, I think there’s a number of things. You know, we can talk to — there is people who are more educated on this than I am, but when it — as you know, when you walk into any store, whether it’s a grocery store or a corner store, the way that items are placed, if it looks attractive, if it’s priced the right way, if it’s in the eye level, all of these different things can make an impact on what you choose.

We also know that even — that by having marketing materials or sometimes even by having the retailer behind the counter, the guy saying behind the counter, hey, have you tried the oranges, can even have an impact.

There’s lots of different ways that you can influence consumer buying habits. But, for the most part, you want to make sure it’s priced right, it looks good, it tastes good, and that you can see it, it’s right there in front of you.

GWEN IFILL: But what if what you see in front of you is pre-packaged noodles, freeze-dried food, and right next to it is perhaps the more expensive fresh noodles? What about this, especially since you’re still trying to stretch your food stamp buck, will encourage you to buy the fresher stuff, if it’s cheaper, if you get more with your food stamps?

YAEL LEHMANN: No, it’s a very good point you’re bringing up.

Price is incredibly important, especially when you’re on a very, very tight budget. And price is going to matter when you’re making your decisions of what you’re going to buy when you’re in the store, whether it’s the convenience store or the grocery store.

There is where it’s critical to have other programs. There’s incentive programs, for example, different programs that are called things like Double Up Food Bucks, for example, that are advocated by groups like Wholesome Wave and Fair Food Network and The Food Trust and others.

But it’s a way that you can stretch your food stamp dollars, so that when you are buying that healthy item, it’s at an even better price point. So, we do want to think about how can we make sure that the prices are good, what additional incentives can we offer to the customer to make sure that the fresh noodle is priced the same as the processed, maybe not as healthy noodle.

GWEN IFILL: Yael Lehmann, executive director of The Food Trust in Philadelphia, thank you very much.

YAEL LEHMANN: Thank you.