Can government programs get people to eat more healthily?

Jill Priluck | Jun 30, 2020

The US federal government spends $100 billion a year on various interventions for improving outcomes for low-income households, including encouraging people to consume more fresh produce. The food-stamps program alone received $65 billion in 2018.

And yet the impact of certain interventions on fruit and vegetable consumption is not well established, according to MIT’s Retsef Levi and Georgia Perakis and MIT PhD candidate Elisabeth Paulson. They created a math-based model capturing how people make food decisions that offers a framework for guiding government decision-making in order to more effectively encourage consumers to eat more fruits and vegetables.

The researchers built their model around consumption information mined from the Nielsen Datasets at Chicago Booth’s Kilts Center for Marketing. The data cover grocery purchases by more than 60,000 households. Using information on shopping trips from 2016, the researchers sifted out a sample of 1,193 households that fell below the federal poverty level, which was $24,300 for a family of four; made at least 20 visits to grocery stores; and did so every 20 days or fewer.

For the purposes of the model, the researchers divided the federal food programs into three categories of intervention: pricing, education, and access. The researchers then assessed how the households optimized shopping decisions on the basis of the interventions they received, as well as their own characteristics such as how much they cared about nutrition. They also evaluated personal preferences for a food group such as fruits and vegetables, and the negative effects of frequent shopping trips to buy perishables. The research expands on their earlier finding that easier access to healthy food through the availability of grocery stores affects spending on fruits and vegetables among households with little nutrition education.

The researchers’ model suggests that targeted price subsidies are better at increasing healthy food consumption than untargeted subsidies that don’t specify types of foods. Food stamps are successful at minimizing food insecurity but do not necessarily change what people eat. The researchers cite as examples of successful nutritional intervention the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children and the Massachusetts-based supplemental Healthy Incentives Program, which provide recipients an allowance or a rebate for purchasing healthy food.

The researchers also argue that people who care about eating healthy food will buy it if their total food budget increases. And they will make greater efforts to seek out healthy food, for example by traveling far distances to grocery stores, even if doing so is inconvenient, the research demonstrates.

Ultimately, the framework can help the government make more efficient allocations in food policy for low-income households, the researchers say. Knowing how much a consumer values nutrition, which affects shopping choices, can lead to programs that encourage the purchase of more fruits and vegetables in poor communities, they argue. 

“Understanding the value of nutrition before investing in access could help preemptively identify situations where access interventions are unlikely to be effective, thus saving time and money,” the researchers write.