Competitive pricing for healthy foods

Evidence Rating  
Evidence rating: Scientifically Supported

Strategies with this rating are most likely to make a difference. These strategies have been tested in many robust studies with consistently positive results.

Disparity Rating  
Disparity rating: Inconclusive impact on disparities

Strategies with this rating do not have enough evidence to assess potential impact on disparities.

Health Factors  
Decision Makers
Date last updated

Competitive pricing assigns higher costs to non-nutritious foods than nutritious foods. Competitive pricing can include incentives, subsidies, or price discounts for healthy foods and beverages as well as disincentives or price increases for unhealthy foods and beverages. Competitive pricing can be implemented in various settings, including schools, worksites, grocery stores or other food retail outlets, cafeterias, and vending machines.

What could this strategy improve?

Expected Benefits

Our evidence rating is based on the likelihood of achieving these outcomes:

  • Increased sales of healthy foods

Potential Benefits

Our evidence rating is not based on these outcomes, but these benefits may also be possible:

  • Increased healthy food consumption

  • Reduced energy use

What does the research say about effectiveness?

There is strong evidence that competitive pricing increases sales of healthy foods, including low-fat foods, fruits, vegetables, and water1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6. Price discounts or subsidies for healthier foods can also increase healthier food consumption1, 5, 6.

Pricing affects individual behavior; adults and teenagers have been shown to purchase items that are lower in cost, whether those items are healthy or unhealthy7. Reductions in the price of low-fat snacks, fruits, and vegetables increase sales of these products1, 3, 4, 5, 8, 9. The size of the price difference matters; larger price differences between lower cost healthy foods and higher cost unhealthy foods are linked to greater improvements in healthy food consumption6. Overall, pricing incentives improve dietary choices and change consumer behavior when implemented alone or in combination with other interventions such as nutrition education1.

Preliminary evidence from price discount interventions suggests that there is a strong demand for healthy foods such as fruits and low-fat snacks, such that a 1% price decrease is associated with more than a 1% increase in quantity demanded5. In some studies, positive behavior changes following subsidies that reduce the price of fruits and vegetables have been sustained several months after subsidies end. Other studies suggest that populations with lower incomes may be more sensitive to prices than those with higher incomes, and youth more sensitive than adults6.

Competitive pricing of healthier foods and beverages along with healthy food marketing strategies has been shown to improve weight status for children and adolescents, especially as part of a broader multi-component school-based intervention to improve the food environment10.

Competitive pricing that increases the purchase and consumption of fresh fruits and vegetables, especially those grown locally and in season, instead of unhealthy, highly processed items may reduce fossil fuel energy used to produce, process, and transport food11, 12, 13. Competitive pricing initiatives may also reduce the energy intensity of an individual’s diet if more plant-based foods are consumed in place of animal products11, 14.

Lowering the price of healthy foods or raising the price of unhealthy foods has not been shown to significantly decrease revenue in school settings4, 9, 15, and in some cases, has increased revenue and total profits1. Distribution effects on obese and low-income populations should be taken into consideration when using strategies like competitive pricing of healthy foods16.

How could this strategy advance health equity? This strategy is rated inconclusive impact on disparities.

It is unclear what impact competitive pricing of healthy foods can have on disparities in access and consumption of healthy foods among populations with lower income.

Many population groups in the U.S., especially people with low incomes and people of color, live and work in areas with an unhealthy food environment and have higher rates of food insecurity than people with higher incomes and white people22. These disparities in access to and consumption of nutritious foods through financial barriers contribute to disparities in diet quality22. Disparities in diet related health outcomes also persist by income level, race and ethnicity, education background, and geographic location in the U.S.23, 24.

What is the relevant historical background?

Throughout U.S. history, discriminatory housing, lending, and exclusionary zoning policies entrenched racial residential segregation and concentrated poverty25, 26. This systemic disinvestment and exclusion by both government and private entities created and maintains community environments with limited resources, deteriorating infrastructure, hazardous industries and waste disposal sites, and many other factors that lead to poorer health outcomes for people of color and people with low incomes27, 28, 29, 30.

Communities shaped by discriminatory policies are often areas that have limited access to healthy and affordable food, formerly known as food deserts31, 32. Individuals who live in these communities face higher food costs, fewer store options, and must travel further to purchase healthy food than those who live in well-resourced communities31. Residents also have increased exposure to high calorie foods that have little nutritional value, which often leads to worse health outcomes32. Many rural areas also lack access to fresh and affordable food, even in areas where farming is an important part of the local economy33. Foods that are higher in calories and less healthy are often more affordable than healthy food options because these foods cost less to manufacture, process, transport and store, government subsidies of commodities (e.g., corn) keep prices low, and there is higher demand for high caloric, shelf-stable foods34.

Equity Considerations
  • Are there places in your community where competitive prices are already being implemented (i.e. schools, libraries, workplaces, vending machines etc.)? If not, where can competitive prices be introduced and implemented?
  • Who can you partner with to bring competitive pricing for healthy foods and beverages to your community?
  • Are there financial barriers or issues with accessing nutritious foods in your community? Can implementing competitive pricing help increase purchase of healthy foods for your community members?
  • Who could benefit the most from more affordable healthy foods in your community? What other barriers prevent them from accessing healthy and nutritious food?
Implementation Examples

Many schools have implemented competitive pricing in their cafeterias and vending machines, including North Community High School in Minneapolis, MN; Vista High School in Vista, CA; the Fayette County Public School District in Lexington, KY8; Marshall County Schools in AL; and Boston Public Schools17.

Workplace wellness policies often include competitive pricing strategies in vending machines and cafeterias. For example, in Michigan, worksite wellness guides encourage large and small workplaces to adopt competitive pricing for healthy foods18.

There are also many grocery stores, convenience stores, and other food retail outlets using competitive pricing to market healthy food options and promote fruit and vegetable sales as part of a healthy food retail model, for example, the Healthy Neighborhood Store Project in Omaha, Nebraska and Northgate Market in Inglewood, California19.

Fresh for Less (FFL), a multi-component and equity-focused program in Austin, Texas has been implemented since 2017 in underserved communities to improve healthy food access. FFL brings healthy foods and fresh produce to communities through farmstands and mobile markets using competitive pricing20, 21.

Implementation Resources

Resources with a focus on equity.

PolicyLink-HFA portal - PolicyLink, The Food Trust, Reinvestment Fund. Healthy food access portal: Research your community, change policy, launch a business, resources & tools.

AHA-VFHK toolkits - American Heart Association (AHA). Voices for healthy kids (VFHK): Resources and toolkits.

ISU-Food and sustainability resources - Iowa State University (ISU), Sustainable Food Processing Alliance. Online resources for food and sustainability.


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