Editorial: It’s not hip to suspend HIP

The Greenfield Recorder

There’s a saying, ‘If it’s not broke, don’t fix it.” By the same token, when something’s working, keep it up. That would apply to HIP, short for Health Incentives Program, which makes food dollars go further for SNAP shoppers and supports local farmers at the same time.

Here’s how it works: Shoppers who use SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, can stretch their dollars by buying fresh food at participating farms or farmers markets. For example, if they spend $5 on tomatoes, they receive $5 to spend on something else, like cereal. “Their food dollars are doubled up to a certain amount each month,” explained Winton Pitcoff, director of Massachusetts Food System Collaborative. “That’s huge for them.” That rebate amount ranges from $40 to $80 per month, depending on the number of people in the household.

The other upside is that local farmers get a lot more sales. Local farms that are HIP vendors have gained more than $9 million in revenue across the state and HIP has broadened the customer base for many small local farms.

Unfortunately, this popular program outstrips its state funding every year, leading to an annual suspension of HIP benefits. This year, that suspension starts Feb. 23 and runs through May 15. As a result, families have to cut back on their purchases of fresh food and participating farmers lose a reliable income stream that helps tide them over the winter months. “There’s just always this level of uncertainty,” said CISA Communications Manager Claire Morenon.

HIP has become increasingly successful every year since its start in 2017, and while the state has been supportive, the budget has not increased enough to keep it going throughout the year. The HIP program has struggled with a lack of funding since its establishment in 2017. The program is particularly important in Franklin County and the North Quabbin, where the density of HIP recipients is matched only by Duke County. The solution is for the state to add more money to its budget for HIP, which is run by the state Department of Transitional Assistance.

Senators like Jo Comerford and Ann Gobi, along with other state senators, filed an amendment to the Senate version of the fiscal year 2020 budget to increase funding from $6.5 million to $8.5 million for the Healthy Incentives Program. “If the $8.5 million is included in the final state budget, then HIP could run year-round,” according to Pat Larson, a member of the Quabbin Harvest board of directors. “Running the incentive program year-round will help both farmers and consumers.”

That didn’t happen in the 2021 budget just released by Gov. Charlie Baker. That means that next spring, the program will again face suspension. Our goal and that of our legislators should still be $8.5 million to fund HIP for a full year of healthy incentives.

In the meantime, SNAP shoppers have less than two weeks to enjoy their HIP benefits: Shop on!