Editorial: State must preserve food incentive program

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, March 9, 2018.

The state must find the money to avoid suspension of the popular Healthy Incentives Program that provides fresh food to low-income people while supporting local farmers.

Massachusetts began the program last April to give additional benefits to recipients of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps. The state originally budgeted $1.35 million for HIP through the end of this fiscal year, June 30, adding to a federal grant and private donations. In less than a year, recipients have received more than $3 million in benefits — far exceeding expectations.

“It just took everyone by surprise,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which promotes the program and helps with fundraising. “It demonstrated a lot about the local food economy in Massachusetts and demonstrated that low-income families really do care about what they eat and what they feed their families.”

Pitcoff said because this is the first program of its kind in the country, it was difficult to anticipate the demand.

The HIP benefits are available to anyone who uses SNAP, which provides an average of $125 per month in food assistance to 42.2 million Americans. Eligibility for SNAP is determined by household income, generally no more than 130 percent of the poverty level ($1,307 in gross monthly income for one person, $2,665 for a family of four).

When people use their SNAP electronic benefit transfer (EBT) card to buy fresh vegetables and fruit from local farmers, they get an instant rebate from the HIP program, which is administered by the state Department of Transitional Assistance. The bonus can then be spent on any SNAP-eligible purchase of food, vegetable plants or seeds.

That means, for example, that a person could buy squash that costs $5 from one farmer at a winter market, and then use the $5 HIP rebate to buy meat or cheese from another vendor.

Any vegetable or fruit purchased at a farmers market, farmstand, mobile market or through a Community Supported Agriculture farm share is eligible for the dollar-to-dollar match from HIP, up to $40 per month for one- or two-person households, $60 for families of three to five, and $80 for families of six or more.

The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative reports that between last April and Jan. 30, SNAP recipients purchased fresh fruits and vegetables worth $3.3 million from more than 200 farms, and that 36,110 families earned HIP incentives.

Among the participating farmers is Jeremy Barker Plotkin, owner of the Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst. Plotkin estimates the program has generated some $15,000 in business for his organic farm since he installed a machine last July allowing SNAP recipients to use their EBT cards.

Plotkin said he hopes the state will find the money to continue offering HIP benefits and to avoid their suspension from mid-April until July, as the Department of Transitional Assistance now says is likely.

“I really hope that the Legislature and governor are able to come up with something to fully fund the program and bridge that gap, because the program really has been a huge win-win for both farmers and our food-insecure neighbors,” Plotkin said.

Hundreds of agencies and farms have lobbied legislators to approve $1.5 million from the supplemental state budget to avoid suspending HIP this spring, and urged that it be fully funded with $6.2 million for the year beginning July 1.

The Northampton Survival Center is among the organizations that wants HIP to continue without interruption. If it does not, there would be two losses, said Sarah Pease, the center’s program director. “One is that people will likely be consuming less fresh produce, and that’s absolutely a loss for the health of the community, and the other is a loss for the farmers who are loving the extra business.”

State Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he fully supports the innovative program, and that strong arguments have been made to continue its funding.

“It’s been a victim of its own success,” Kulik said. “It’s been so heavily utilized and expended funds so much more quickly than anyone could have anticipated.”

We hope that Kulik is successful in persuading his colleagues that a program encouraging low-income people to eat healthy, local produce is too valuable to let lapse.