Bipartisan momentum is building to scale up and tweak the Gus Schumacher Nutrition Incentive Program (GusNIP) and enhance the offering of the healthy incentive pilots funded at $20 million in the 2008 farm bill.

Securing farm bill funding in a tight budgetary environment is not new for GusNIP supporters; the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Program established five-year spending of $100 million in the 2014 farm bill and increased to a permanent baseline of $250 million in 2018. But Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., herself a vocal champion of the cause, earlier this year called for creativity in helping stretch farm bill dollars for funding healthy food projects, noting it would be hard to find new funds in this farm bill cycle.

GusNIP supports nutrition incentive projects for SNAP recipients to purchase fruits and vegetables, and the last farm bill also allocated 10% of total GusNIP funds to be used for the produce prescription projects that provide prescriptions in the form of incentives for the purchase of fruit and vegetables. Supporters said it is important to make tweaks to the program to enhance health benefits for SNAP recipients, support local farmers and contribute to local economies. 

“Maintaining the program where it is right now is not necessarily a win. It’s going to result in a decline overall,” said Mark Nicholson, senior policy director for the Fair Food Network. “What we’re fighting for is really the health of the program, the sustainability of the program, and that really has to include both addressing the match and increased investment so that we can be reaching more families and more farmers with it.”

In a July letter to Congressional ag leaders, more than 600 organizations identified their top upcoming farm bill priorities for GusNIP, including:

  • An increase in funding for GusNIP that would enable more people to increase their consumption of fruits and vegetables.
  • The reduction or elimination of the nongovernment match requirement.
  • The creation of a new USDA program to scale incentives statewide and prioritize grants for incentive projects in a variety of retail settings.
  • Improvements to maintain produce prescriptions as a component of the program and expedite their use in health care settings.

Within the farm bill discussion and limiting the types of foods SNAP recipients can buy, GusNIP is the “only federal program with dedicated resources specifically for SNAP families to help them eat healthier and improve their access to fruit and vegetables,” Nicholson said.

The 2018 farm bill created the Nutrition Incentive Program Training, Technical Assistance, Evaluation and Information Center (NTAE) to also track the impact of the program. A report on year three impact findings of participation found nutrition incentive project participants reported higher fruit and vegetable intake than the average U.S. adult and higher fruit and vegetable (FV) intake among those utilizing the program for six months compared to first-time participants.

“These results are particularly meaningful given that prior research demonstrates a dose-response relationship between FV intake and health, i.e., increases in FV intake leads to a protective impact on health,” the report noted.

In 2022, incentive spending at local food retailers generated an economic impact of approximately $85 million — a 107% increase from 2021, according to the report, which also found that $3 in economic activity was generated for every $1 invested in a healthy food incentive.

GusNIP currently requires a 1-to-1 nonfederal match requirement in the public-private partnership. Nicholson said if the farm bill does not address the 1-to-1 match, those funding sources for the nonfederal portion may step back as many foundations and nonprofits are saying they’re not able to scale the programs nationally.

Mark Schoeberl, American Heart Association national executive vice president of advocacy, said reducing the required match would help GusNIP reach more communities. Those areas that don’t have as many private foundations or willing funding partners may be those that have the highest need.

mollie-van-lieu.jpgMollie Van Lieu, IFPA

Benefits for the purchase of fruits and vegetables started predominantly in farmers’ markets to support local producers and encourage the purchase of healthy foods. Supporters recognize the important role farmers' markets played in the creation of the incentive structure and the ongoing economic impact incentives have on farmers' markets participating in the program, but 90% of SNAP dollars are redeemed at brick-and-mortar retail stores.

“If the goal really is to increase access and consumption of fruits and vegetables, in addition to farmers’ markets, we have to get them in stores where people are redeeming their SNAP dollars often,” said Mollie Van Lieu, the International Fresh Produce Association’s vice president of nutrition and health.

Proponents of the statewide expansion of GusNIP believe it can enhance SNAP's ability to improve participants' dietary quality. 

“Statewide expansion by state agencies to take on this work if they’re able, or a nonprofit that can operate statewide, I think will provide a lot of opportunity for equity and ensuring that it’s embedded within the nutrition programs at the state level and ensuring that it’s reaching places that might not have a nonprofit currently operating in that space,” she said. 

She said the statewide expansion is an important piece in figuring out how to integrate GusNIP on SNAP EBT cards, which can make it easier for retailers to participate and participants to redeem benefits.

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“We have to make sure it’s reaching more people. It’s great if you can participate in it, but not a lot of SNAP consumers can access it right now,” Van Lieu said, noting different states have different partnerships and funding of the incentives program.

Schoeberl said, “Congress also needs to explore options to modernize SNAP EBT technology to ensure program integrity, protect beneficiaries and enable and allow for future GusNIP national scalability.”

The last farm bill designated 10% of the GusNIP pool of money to be targeted at produce prescriptions.

But produce prescriptions, Van Lieu said, “can only scale in a meaningful way if it's embedded into the health care system.”

IFPA is seeking separate review panels for government-funded produce prescription projects and those designated for nutrition incentives. IFPA also wants GusNIP to fund produce prescription projects run in a clinical setting, where health care outcomes can be better measured, she said.

Nicholson said the ongoing program evaluation confirms the positive impacts of the program and “that true success is absolutely paramount to why we think we have such broad bipartisan support, and why we continue to see this momentum building.”

Several marker bills seek to reform GusNIP in the upcoming farm bill.

Reps. Dan Kildee, D-Mich., and Rick Crawford, R-Ark., introduced in late July the GusNIP Expansion Act, which Nicholson said includes many of the policy requests from the broad coalition of more than 600 supporters. It reduces the federal match for grants from 50% to 20%, and, as suggested, creates a new USDA cooperative agreement to scale incentives statewide.

In transitioning the PRx program out of USDA, the Kildee-Crawford bill requires USDA to provide a 10-year road map on transitioning it to a more healthcare-focused agency. In addition, it instills a two-tiered grant structure for clinical and scalable infrastructure and creates a separate grant proposal review panel to identify the most effective programs that maximize fruits and vegetables as medicine.

Another bill, the GusNIP Improvement Act, introduced by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, would increase overall funding to $150 million per year that would help expand the reach of the program across the country. The bill also boosts the federal share of the program match from 50% to 90% and eliminates the requirement altogether for projects that are under $100,000, which would reduce burdens that have hindered growth for many grantees.

One of the most ambitious marker bills is the Opt for Health with SNAP (OH SNAP), Close the Fruit and Vegetable Gap Act of 2023 introduced by Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del.

The OH SNAP Act would scale up the mandatory funding for GusNIP to $3.5 billion over the five years of the 2023 farm bill and authorize $100 million of discretionary funding annually for five years. Further, the bill would eliminate the local cost-share requirement.

Nicholson said this bill “really captures some of the aspirational goals” of expanding the GusNIP program based on a Colorado State University study on the costs and economic benefits associated with nationwide expansion.

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