Capitalism has been somewhat discredited lately. The unregulated hand of the market, it seems, leads not to a richer society but one with vast income disparities and a growing class of workers without much hope for the future.
But as Connecticut-based nonprofit Wholesome Wave proves, basic capitalist incentives can still be a force for good. In a survey released today, Wholesome Wave showed that offering incentives to buy fruits and vegetables helps low-income families eat better and farmers in need.
Wholesome Wave, an organization I have long watched with interest, offers double-your-money coupons to those eligible for food stamps, now called SNAP, when they buy fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers market. The idea is to encourage more healthful eating through incentives, rather than cracking down on those with limited incomes through controversial taxes on junk food or regulations on what they are permitted to buy with their government dollars.
The results are outstanding. Eighty-seven percent of consumers that received Wholesome Wave’s Double Voucher coupons said it increased or greatly increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables and more than 90 percent agreed that the fresh produce they bought made a big difference in their family’s diet. Additionally, 73 percent said they would not have gone to a farmers market had the incentive not been in place.
This is good for families and good for the farmers. It leverages government funds to build new markets for small and mid-sized farms that have been pushed out of business over the last 50 years. On average, SNAP redemption doubled at markets after double voucher coupons were introduced. And in some markets, the rates were much higher. At the 61st Street market in Chicago, SNAP redemption went from $1,100 per season to more than $10,000 two years after the program was introduced. In Armory, Rhode Island, SNAP receipts jumped from $632 to $5,652 per season.
The growing demand allowed farmers to expand their businesses. About 15 percent of the 1,700 farmers surveyed said that they had increased acreage or production as a result of increased sales and 12 percent said they had diversified the number of crops they grew.
Wholesome Wave’s impressive results have drawn broad support. This week, hospital group Kaiser Permanente announced a $1.2 million grant that will allow Wholesome Wave to introduce or expand its incentive programs at as many as 30 more farmers markets across the country. As Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave’s founder and CEO says, it’s simple math: “This is a two-for-one sale. The emotional marketing triggers are there,” he said. “It works because it’s capitalism.”