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Can doubling down on food stamps boost nutrition?

The food stamp program, which more than doubled in size since the recession hit, has been hit with criticisms of excessive spending. But one new program is about to get a $100 million boost for recipients.

That's the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive, or FINI, which was approved in the 2014 Farm Bill. The FINI program, which is now accepting applications to fund new community-based programs through Dec. 15, plans on adding benefits to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), or food stamps, as a way to improve healthy eating for low-income Americans over the next five years.

The spending will help fund community programs such as Double Up Food Bucks, which provides matching funds for food stamp recipients to buy fresh fruits and vegetables, effectively "doubling down" on spending. While some might argue that any additional spending is negative, the program comes amid concern that food stamp recipients rely on the benefit to buy unhealthy foods, such as candy or soda. The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently asked for public input about whether it should release data on which stores and retailers benefit from SNAP spending.

What cuts in the new farm bill mean for those depending on food stamps 02:27

About 13.5 million low income Americans live in so-called "food deserts," or urban or rural areas without access to fresh food in grocery stories. Lack of healthy food can contribute to obesity and other health issues, health experts say. Yet at the same time, some food deserts may offer farmer's markets, such as Newark, New Jersey, a troubled city plagued by poverty which offers a weekly farmer's market in the summer and fall.

"It's so simple, but it has such profound effects both for SNAP recipients and for local farmers," vegetable farmer Mike Appell, who sells his produce in Tulsa, Oklahoma, told NPR.

The idea of providing an incentive to buy local produce started about a decade ago. That's when a New York City program gave food stamp recipients an extra $2 to spend on fresh produce if they spent $5 of their food stamp benefits at a farmer's market. Similar incentive programs spread to more cities, often with support from private organizations.

At the same time, the USDA has sought to help food-stamp recipients spend their benefits on local produce, mainly thanks to the USDA's push to license farmer's markets to accept SNAP benefits.

The first rollout will come early next year, though $31.5 million in spending on the first approved programs through the FINI plan. The effort will fund community-based programs that increase consumption of regionally grown produce, and which are located in underserved communities.

While it may seem like a big commitment of tax payer dollars, the program represents just a small portion of overall food stamp spending. In 2013, SNAP spent $79.9 billion on providing food stamps to low-income households. That means the $100 million FINI program represents less than one-tenth of a percent of total spending.

The bigger question may be whether spending more can actually result in savings. Essentially, can a dose of daily kale or organic carrots make a dent in healthcare costs for low-income Americans? While it's unclear what FINI's $100 million initial outlay will deliver in terms of concrete benefits, a policy brief from the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future endorsed the program.

"Incentives for fruit and vegetable consumption could reap enormous health and economic benefits over time," the policy brief pointed out.

If Americans increased their consumption of fruits and vegetables to meet federal dietary recommendations, that would lower the country's costs for cardiovascular treatment by $17 billion alone, the brief noted.

While the FINI program may be just a drop in the bucket, the study noted that the $100 million program represents "some progress," with research indicating that earlier community programs have boosted fruit and vegetable consumption among low-income consumers.

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