Editorial: It’s time to fund HIP year-round

The Recorder, December 3, 2018

Since its launch in April 2017, the Healthy Incentives Program has been a victim of its own success. The way it works is that SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients can use their EBT cards to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, and other local fresh food vendors. Families receive up to $40 a month for two people and $80 a month for families of six or more. The result is healthier food on the table, healthier people and healthier bottom lines for our farmers — a classic win-win combination.

What has happened, however, is that success keeps outstripping funding, leading to suspensions throughout the year. HIP is supported in part by a $1.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, matched at the state level. SNAP families spent nearly twice the amount of the grant in 2017 on produce from local farms.

As then state Sen. Stan Rosenberg said in April, “We increased funding in FY ‘18 but, lo and behold, it continued to grow. All of the money was gone and they had to suspend the program.”

Thanks to an amendment spearheaded by Rosenberg and Sen. Anne Gobi, $2.1 million was approved to carry the program for the rest of the fiscal year.

Fast forward to this fall, when a Nov. 21 cut-off loomed just in time to interrupt purchases of local potatoes, squash, carrots and other produce for Thanksgiving and the coming winter. Once again, state legislators rescued the program so that it can continue through the winter until Feb. 28.

This on-again, off-again funding undermines the best efforts of farmers who plant in anticipation of SNAP-supported purchases. “To be told mid-season, after you’ve already planted your crops, that you’re actually not going to get all these customers you’d counted on, that’s detrimental to how farms work,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food system Collaborative.

In Franklin County and the North Quabbin area, with the rate of “food insecurity” at something like 12 percent, the bond between growers and SNAP recipients has grown especially strong due to the Healthy Incentives Program. At Quabbin Harvest, for example, a cooperative food market in downtown Orange, SNAP recipients purchase food shares, reimbursed through HIP, that supply them with fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month. The coop food market has been the number one HIP enroller in the state, helping about 120 low-income households buy fresh fruit and vegetables each month.

“Quabbin Harvest has built good relationships with the current households that are participating,” said Pat Larson, a member of the Quabbin Harvest board of directors and outreach committee. “We want to continue building on relationships with all the customers.”

That will only happen with funding that matches the level of interest in the program. Pitcoff estimates it would take about $7 million to fund HIP continuously for the entire year, and $9 million in the coming years, if the rate of growth continues. “It’s hard to estimate because it keeps growing,” Pitcoff said.

Without additional funding in next fiscal year’s budget, HIP will continue its intermittent course, with detrimental effects on both sides of the equation.

“We have farmers who are trying to make a livelihood and want to sell to as many people in the community as they can,” said Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.

“People voice strong concerns when HIP is suspended for several months at a time,” said Larson. “We are not happy with the inconsistent funding and support making this a year-round program.”

We do, too. HIP money ends up in one of the most important sectors of our agricultural economy — small farms — which is good reason to support this wildly successful state/federal partnership with increased funding.