Aetna Foundation Awards Grants to Study Food Assistance Programs That Help Low-Income Families Buy Fresh Fruits, Vegetables

Dec 15 2011
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— Research Aimed at Fighting Obesity, Improving Nutrition for People Receiving Government Benefits —

HARTFORD, Conn.–(BUSINESS WIRE)–The Aetna Foundation has awarded grants totaling $381,000 to research the effectiveness of several food assistance programs designed to help low-income families buy more fresh produce and other healthful foods, and lower their risk of obesity and its related diseases such as diabetes and heart disease.

Fair Food Network in Ann Arbor, Mich., will receive $250,000 to evaluate the impact of offering economic incentives at farmers’ markets for beneficiaries of the federal government’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps. These farmers’ markets enable SNAP beneficiaries to purchase twice the amount of produce their government food benefits would normally afford.

Altarum Institute, also in Ann Arbor, Mich., will receive $131,000 to study the ability of American Indians living on tribal lands in Arizona to buy fruits, vegetables and other nutrient-dense foods that are prescribed by the federal government’s Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children (WIC).

“Poor diet is a significant factor in higher rates of obesity and its correlating chronic health conditions among low-income and minority populations,” said Gillian Barclay, D.D.S., Dr.P.H., vice president of the Aetna Foundation.

“It is crucial that we learn if programs and policies designed to make healthful food more affordable and accessible are working and how these efforts can be improved. These studies by Fair Food Network and Altarum Institute will provide important data to help policy makers and nonprofit agencies refine their efforts in helping beneficiaries of federal food assistance eat a more nutritious diet and live healthier lives,” she said.

Fair Food Network is undertaking a cluster evaluation of healthful food incentive projects for SNAP beneficiaries that the organization sponsors in Michigan and similar programs sponsored by Wholesome Wave, which operates in 26 states;, which operates in New Orleans; and Roots of Change, which operates in California. Collectively, the four organizations support more than 250 farmers’ markets in urban and rural communities where food benefit recipients can receive double-value coupons for their government benefits to purchase locally grown produce.

Fair Food Network will study a diverse sample of 50 sites to capture the regional, economic, demographic and agricultural variability of farmers’ markets. The goal is to assess the impact of these farmers’ markets on SNAP recipients’ food purchasing behavior and develop best practices for the organizations to improve project management and results. The study also will measure the programs’ effect on the economic well-being of participating farmers, farmers’ markets and local economies. Ultimately, the data will add valuable information to discussions of the SNAP program, which is scheduled for reauthorization in the 2012 Farm Bill.

“As changes in SNAP legislation are debated in the months leading up to passage of the next Farm Bill, it is vital to have an evaluation of this scope in place as we work to meet the challenges of curbing obesity and making healthful food available to all,” said Oran B. Hesterman, Ph.D., president and CEO of Fair Food Network. “We anticipate that our findings can inform public policy debates on how SNAP can improve access to healthy food and encourage recipients to purchase more fresh produce as a critical step to realizing positive health outcomes for low-income populations.”

Altarum Institute’s study is aimed at improving the nutritional intake and health of American Indians who receive WIC benefits and who are at higher risk of obesity and diet-related chronic diseases, such as diabetes and hypertension. Preliminary data suggest that many of the nearly 65,000 WIC participants who live on tribal lands nationally are unable to benefit fully from the program because their food outlets have difficulty stocking fruit, vegetables, whole grains and other healthful foods prescribed by the WIC program. Cultural barriers may also play a role in limiting the use of WIC benefits.

To better understand the factors that may impede American Indians’ ability to purchase healthful foods with their WIC benefits, Altarum will focus on 12 Tribal WIC programs and one Urban Indian agency in Arizona. Researchers will analyze WIC redemption patterns; identify barriers beneficiaries may face, such as availability and quality of approved food, cultural preferences, and long distances to WIC-approved food outlets; and identify barriers tribal grocery outlets may face, including inadequate wholesale food distribution systems, limited storage, extensive transportation needs and minimum stocking requirements. Additionally, researchers will conduct in-depth case studies of successful WIC redemption programs among the 12 Tribal programs to pinpoint best practices that can be replicated across Indian Tribal Organization-managed WIC programs around the nation.

“The federal WIC program has the potential to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic by promoting healthful eating habits among young children, particularly in the American Indian population where nearly 35 percent of children age 2 – 5 are either overweight or obese,” said Loren Bell, Institute Fellow and co-director of the Center for Food Assistance and Nutrition at Altarum. “But WIC’s healthful food guidelines can be effective only if the people receiving its benefits can purchase healthful food. By developing data specific to the needs of American Indians living on tribal lands, we believe our findings will help make nutrient-dense food more available and accessible. Additionally, our work can guide federal officials charged with improving the health of American Indian populations in their review of policies that support or impede the full use of the WIC program and determine the technical assistance and resources needed for the program to be more effective.”

The results of Altarum’s study are expected in fall 2013.

Fighting obesity is one of the Aetna Foundation’s three program areas, along with promoting racial and ethnic equity in health and health care and promoting integrated and well-coordinated health care. In May, the Aetna Foundation announced $500,000 in funding for research on the impact of federal policies and programs, such as SNAP, on childhood obesity. Earlier in 2011, the Aetna Foundation awarded an additional $1 million in funding for research projects to deepen understanding of the root causes of obesity, including food pricing, healthful food availability and the role of sidewalks, green spaces, public safety and other built environment factors.

About the Aetna Foundation

The Aetna Foundation, Inc. is the independent charitable and philanthropic arm of Aetna Inc. Since 1980, Aetna and the Aetna Foundation have contributed $394 million in grants and sponsorships, including $15.6 million in 2010. As a national health foundation, we promote wellness, health, and access to high-quality health care for everyone. This work is enhanced by the time and commitment of Aetna employees, who have volunteered more than 2.3 million hours since 2003. Our current giving is focused on addressing the rising rate of adult and childhood obesity in the U.S.; promoting racial and ethnic equity in health and health care; and advancing integrated health care. For more information, visit

About Fair Food Network

Fair Food Network is a national nonprofit dedicated to building a more just and sustainable food system. We work at the intersection of food systems, sustainability, and social equity to provide access to healthy, fresh and sustainably grown food, especially in underserved communities. We implement model programs and bring the right people together to generate ideas, share resources, and promote policy changes to repair our food system.

About Altarum Institute

Altarum Institute integrates objective research and client-centered consulting skills to deliver comprehensive, systems-based solutions that improve health and health care. A nonprofit serving clients in the public and private sectors, Altarum employs more than 400 individuals and is headquartered in Ann Arbor, Michigan with additional offices in the Washington, DC area; Sacramento, California; Atlanta, Georgia; Portland, Maine; and San Antonio, Texas.



Susan Millerick, 860-273-0536

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