by Lorrie Griffith/editor–West
Northgate González Market, the 41-store Southern California grocery retailer, soon will embark on a four-year pilot test to see whether offering Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants financial incentives to purchase fruits and vegetables actually increases their purchase and consumption.
The Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive (FINI) trial is being made possible through a nearly $3.4 million grant to The Center for Community Health, part of the University of California San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine, from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
USDA was looking for retailers and other partners to develop technologies that would make it easy for customers, in this case SNAP customers, to redeem and receive incentive dollars for the purchase of healthy fruits and vegetables, according to Joe Prickitt, MS, RD, senior director of the Southern California Nutrition Incentive Program at the UCSD School of Medicine.
His agency contacted Northgate González Market, which operates stores in predominantly low-income areas of Southern California, as a potential partner in the pilot program, and Northgate readily agreed to develop the needed technology to make the program run.
The pilot is expected to launch in the fourth quarter of 2016; details still are being ironed out in preparation for the launch.
But Prickitt did outline the basics of how the program will work for the 3,000-4,000 SNAP participants in Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego counties that will be randomly selected to participate in the trial.
Northgate González Market created an electronic wallet that is tied to the customer’s shopper loyalty card. Every time the SNAP trial participant uses his or her customer loyalty card in conjunction with the EBT card for SNAP benefits, “they will receive a dollar-for-dollar match up to $40 per month on the purchase of certain fruits and vegetables,” Prickitt said. “For instance, if they buy $10 of qualifying fruits and vegetables, they will receive $10 in financial incentive rebate. That $10 will go directly into the electronic wallet that’s tied to their customer loyalty card, and then on a subsequent purchase, when they come in to shop again, they will have that $10 waiting to support the purchase of additional healthy fruits and vegetables.”
The shopper’s receipt will show how much is in his or her e-wallet.
Victor González, owner and VP of Northgate González Market, said, “We are honored to work with UC San Diego to support the USDA in the development, implementation and evaluation of a food nutrition incentive program. It is our goal to develop an effective, efficient and replicable financial incentive rebate system that can serve as a national model for retailers and contribute to the enhanced health and well-being of low-income community members.”
He told The Shelby Report that Northgate González Market is hopeful that one byproduct of the test is that the trial’s participants will be able to extend their benefits into the last half of the month.
Currently, Northgate’s sales are strong in the first two weeks of the month but there is a noticeable drop-off in the last two weeks because of the SNAP benefits distribution schedule.
González said this type of program fits well with the 36-year-old, family-owned chain’s community-centric focus.
“This is something that we want to participate in because it is for our communities,” said González. “Our stores are, for the most part, in food deserts, low-income communities. That goes hand in hand with the program.”
The chain has made the health and wellness of its shoppers a focal point through a program called “Viva La Salud.” It includes efforts to help shoppers fight obesity, get needed mammograms, encourage kids to eat well, etc. Hundreds of events are held each year.
In-store, Viva La Salud comes in the form of shelf tags.
“We tell customers the benefits. We have signs for all of that—proteins or whatever it is that has to do with better health,” González said.
He emphasized that every item in the store goes through a rigorous screening so that Northgate can be confident it is doing its part to point customers in the right nutritional direction.
The chain’s healthy food shelf labeling program will be further enhanced and supported through the grant (see below).
But there’s something for everyone
Prickitt noted that while about $1.2 million of the $3.4 million grant will be devoted to the financial incentive program, the pilot also will include two other programs designed to boost consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables for not only SNAP participants but all Northgate customers.
One of those is fruit and vegetable promotions.
“Northgate is going to be working with us along with their produce industry partners to conduct special discount pricing promotions,” Prickitt said. “They do a lot of this already, but we’re going to be enhancing and developing this further for these special fruit and vegetable promotions that support everyone, including the SNAP participants, to hopefully increase their purchases of fruits and vegetables through special promotions with discount pricing. That’s going to be available in all stores to all customers.”
The third component, he said, is nutrition education.
“We certainly are trying to increase the purchase of fruits and vegetables, but we also want to support SNAP customers and all the shoppers in terms of the knowledge and self-efficacy to support the purchasing and eating of fruits and vegetables and healthy foods,” said Prickitt, whose career has been devoted to this mission through positions with the 5 a Day for Better Health Program as well as the Produce Marketing Association’s Produce for Better Health Foundation.
“In all the stores we are going to be providing and supporting nutrition education,” he said. “We will be providing a comprehensive healthy shelf labeling system that will tell consumers which are the heart-healthy foods, the high-fiber foods, the low-sodium foods—to support healthy purchases at retail.”
Cooking demonstrations also will emphasize healthy eating. Northgate’s own celebrity chef, Chef Pablo, will be doing healthy cooking demonstrations, according to Prickitt, as will others.
Sampling healthy foods, fruits and vegetables, “working hand in hand with our public health departments,” also will take place.
In terms of public health departments, Prickitt said the program has received support from the California Department of Public Health; the health departments in the three counties where the trial will take place; and CalFresh, which is what California calls its SNAP program.
CalFresh will work with the local health departments to support and enhance Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention (NEOP) programs at the stores.
“So the beauty of it is that we’re going to be integrating and coordinating our efforts with the efforts of the public health department and their healthy retail programs and leveraging resources and further supporting the health and well-being of the SNAP, or in our case, the CalFresh, participants,” he said.
Prickitt commended Northgate for getting behind this “historic” effort quickly and devoting the resources needed to have the technology in place.
“What’s historic about this is that the USDA is actually rewarding SNAP participants to make the healthy choice. And they’re making it easier for them to make the healthy choice with the financial incentives,” he said. “It’s something that Victor González and Northgate González Market and his whole team support, which is just fantastic.”
He said a USDA study found that SNAP participants are not the only beneficiaries of fruit and vegetable purchase incentive programs.
“Obviously, it supports the retailers, but it…literally supports the local economies as well as enhancing the health and well-being of the SNAP participants,” Prickitt said. “It’s really a wonderful win-win situation.”
During the four-year grant period for the randomized control trial study, researchers at UC-San Diego will be evaluating the results, including gathering data on per capita spending on fruits and vegetables and tracking changes in behavior of SNAP participants who receive education.
“We’re just hoping that we show significant increases in the purchase of fruits and vegetables via the incentive program that would support continued funding for this type of effort nationwide,” Prickitt said. “And we’re hoping the model we’re developing with Northgate is a replicable model, that other retailers would take a look at and say, ‘well, you know if Northgate did this, we can also do this and support our customers using our customer loyalty card and system like that.’ There’s a lot of opportunity here.”
USDA food access grants totaled $16.8 million
The UCSD grant is part of $16.8 million in grants announced by USDA this past June to support programs designed to increase affordable food access to low-income community members who participate in SNAP. In all, USDA awarded 27 FINI allocations for similar projects in 18 states.
“USDA is committed to providing low-income families with the resources they need to consume more nutritious food. Last year, SNAP kept at least 4.7 million Americans — including 2.1 million children — out of poverty,” said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. “Programs like FINI build on the success we’ve seen with the use of healthy incentives, and with many of the projects being run at farmers markets, we’re also helping to strengthen local and regional food systems.”
“This is a great opportunity for San Diego and communities across California to better understand the dynamics of food insecurities and the effects on healthy eating,” said Kim McCoy Wade, chief-CalFresh Branch at the California Department of Social Services. “We are incentivizing and increasing access to nutritious fruits and vegetables in low-income communities and using that experience in the development of model programs which make it easier for families and adults to make healthy choices.”
In addition to UCSD and Northgate González Markets, other partners supporting this program include the University of California Office of the President Global Food Initiative, California Endowment, Center for Good Food Purchasing, Ecology Center, Univision Radio, California Department of Public Health Nutrition Education and Obesity Prevention Branch, and the California Department of Social Services CalFresh Branch.
UCSD’s Center for Community Health promotes optimal health in all populations, especially those experiencing the largest health disparities, and has experience conducting chronic disease and obesity prevention research and public health interventions. Since its inception in 1986, the center has received and managed more than $100 million in extramural funding.