Menus Subscribe Search
(PHOTO: PITI TAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

(PHOTO: PITI TAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Rebates Aim to Foster Healthier Eating in South Africa

• March 21, 2013 • 4:00 AM

(PHOTO: PITI TAN/SHUTTERSTOCK)

Can rebates on fruits and vegetables encourage us to shop more healthfully?

The best public health stratagems are often the least overt ones.

Consider New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s recent campaigns to cap the size of soft drinks and keep cigarettes out of view of young customers. Instead of picking up a sledgehammer—publicly shaming the industries’ heavyweights, or declaring an outright war on soda and tobacco—Bloomberg went for the ball-peen: he sought to redefine in New Yorkers’ minds the size of a “regular” Coke, from 16 to eight ounces, and to remove the visual cues that encourage us to make impulse buys, whether Marlboros or Reese’s Pieces, at the register.

Alas, no good public health scheme goes unpunished in the United States, and deep-pocketed corporate interests being what they are, Nanny Bloomberg’s initiatives seem destined for messy legal battles. In other corners of the world, meanwhile, governments are busy trying to do what the American one seems unable to: save people from themselves.

In South Africa, a three-year campaign by the country’s largest health insurer has demonstrated that customers who are given rebates on fruits, vegetables, and other nutritionist-approved foods quickly change their dietary habits. Healthful eating? It just makes good cents.

The HealthyFood program, sponsored by insurer Discovery, offers its beneficiaries a 10 to 25 percent rebate on produce and other smart selections—some 6,000 items total, including canned veggies and non-fat dairy products—at hundreds of Pick n Pay supermarkets around the country. Using scanner data, researchers from the Rand Corporation were able to track the grocery purchases of 169,000 Discovery clients, 100,000 of whom were enrolled in HealthyFood; the remaining 69,000 were not.

Published online this week in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine, the results show that among HealthyFood enrollees receiving a 10 percent rebate for good supermarket behavior, the ratio of healthful food to total food purchased increased 6 percent, while the ratio of unhealthful food—products high in trans fats, sugar, salt, and refined starches—decreased by nearly the same amount. When the rebate was bumped to 25 percent, customers bought even more fruits and vegetables; their healthful expenditures increased close to 10 percent, while their unhealthful expenditures fell 7 percent.

Of course, a healthy diet has to do with more than how you stock your pantry. Sedentary office life, a culture of snacking, and too-generous portion sizes are as much to blame for our obesity epidemic as poor supermarket choices. Indeed, we’d be better off if more Americans simply had the luxury of shopping at greengrocers and farmers’ markets, rather than corner stores.

But if the “psychology of saving” and knocking a few pennies off the cost of carrots and kohlrabi can motivate Safeway shoppers to buy fewer Ding Dongs, well, that’s an appetizing approach, too.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

September 19 • 4:00 PM

In Your Own Words: What It’s Like to Get Sued Over Past Debts

Some describe their surprise when they were sued after falling behind on medical and credit card bills.



September 19 • 1:26 PM

For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won’t change minds.


September 19 • 12:00 PM

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.


September 19 • 10:00 AM

Why the Poor Remain Poor

A follow-up to “How Being Poor Makes You Poor.”


September 19 • 9:03 AM

Why Science Won’t Defeat Ebola

While science will certainly help, winning the battle against Ebola is a social challenge.


September 19 • 8:00 AM

Burrito Treason in the Lone Star State

Did Meatless Mondays bring down Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples?


September 19 • 7:31 AM

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.


September 19 • 6:00 AM

The Most Untouchable Man in Sports

How the head of the governing body for the world’s most popular sport freely wields his wildly incompetent power.


September 19 • 4:00 AM

The Danger of Dining With an Overweight Companion

There’s a good chance you’ll eat more unhealthy food.



September 18 • 4:00 PM

Racial Disparity in Imprisonment Inspires White People to Be Even More Tough on Crime

White Americans are more comfortable with punitive and harsh policing and sentencing when they imagine that the people being policed and put in prison are black.



September 18 • 2:00 PM

The Wages of Millions Are Being Seized to Pay Past Debts

A new study provides the first-ever tally of how many employees lose up to a quarter of their paychecks over debts like unpaid credit card or medical bills and student loans.


September 18 • 12:00 PM

When Counterfeit and Contaminated Drugs Are Deadly

The cost and the crackdown, worldwide.


September 18 • 10:00 AM

How Do You Make a Living, Molly Crabapple?

Noah Davis talks to Molly Crapabble about Michelangelo, the Medicis, and the tension between making art and making money.


September 18 • 9:00 AM

Um, Why Are These Professors Creeping on My Facebook Page?

The ethics of student-teacher “intimacy”—on campus and on social media.


September 18 • 8:00 AM

Welcome to the Economy Economy

With the recent introduction of Apple Pay, the Silicon Valley giant is promising to remake how we interact with money. Could iCoin be next?



September 18 • 6:09 AM

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.


September 18 • 6:00 AM

Homeless on Purpose

The latest entry in a series of interviews about subculture in America.


September 18 • 4:00 AM

Why Original Artworks Move Us More Than Reproductions

Researchers present evidence that hand-created artworks convey an almost magical sense of the artist’s essence.


September 17 • 4:00 PM

Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

A decade after the ban expired, gun control groups say that focusing on other policies will save more American lives.


September 17 • 2:00 PM

Can You Make Two People Like Each Other Just By Telling Them That They Should?

OKCupid manipulates user data in an attempt to find out.


September 17 • 12:00 PM

Understanding ISIL Messaging Through Behavioral Science

By generating propaganda that taps into individuals’ emotional and cognitive states, ISIL is better able motivate people to join their jihad.


Follow us


For Charitable Products, Sex Doesn’t Sell

Sexy women may turn heads, but for pro-social and charitable products, they won't change minds.

Carbon Taxes Really Do Work

A new study shows that taxing carbon dioxide emissions could actually work to reduce greenhouse gases without any negative effects on employment and revenues.

Savor Good Times, Get Through the Bad Ones—With Categories

Ticking off a category of things to do can feel like progress or a fun time coming to an end.

How to Build a Better Election

Elimination-style voting is harder to fiddle with than majority rule.

Do Conspiracy Theorists Feed on Unsuspecting Internet Trolls?

Not literally, but debunkers and satirists do fuel conspiracy theorists' appetites.

The Big One

One in three drivers in Brooklyn's Park Slope—at certain times of day—is just looking for parking. The same goes for drivers in Manhattan's SoHo. September/October 2014 new-big-one-3

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.