Farm food benefits program revived

Commonwealth magazine, March 4, 2020, by Shira Schoenberg

After a nearly two-week hiatus, Massachusetts plans to use $2 million in new state funds to restart a program that lets SNAP recipients receive additional money to buy fresh produce.

The program will begin again on Friday.

“It’s great to see the administration and Legislature supporting the program so it can operate the way it’s intended,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, a privately funded organization created to implement the state’s local food action plan.

On February 24, the state Department of Transitional Assistance suspended the Healthy Incentive Program, or HIP, which lets low-income individuals receiving SNAP benefits – formerly known as food stamps – double the size of their benefit if they buy produce from a participating farmer. So someone can shop at a farmers market and spend $3 of their benefits to buy $6 worth of fresh fruits or vegetables.

State officials said so many people participated in the program that it was on track to overrun its $6.5 million budget. DTA decided to suspend the program for the winter, and restart it May 15 when there are more farmers markets and the benefits are more widely used.

But advocates for farmers and low-income individuals lobbied the Legislature to increase funding for HIP and ensure its viability year-round.

“There are good farmers markets throughout the state that operate through the winter,” Pitcoff said. He said having fresh, healthy food remain accessible to people is important.

Several farmers said  they were also upset at the program’s unpredictability, since they grew crops with the expectation that they would be able to sell to people receiving HIP benefits.

On Wednesday, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a supplemental budget bill that was recently passed by the Legislature that includes $2 million to continue the HIP program through the winter. Language in the bill requires HIP to be operated year-round. The language mandates that any suspension be lifted within 20 days of the bill becoming law.

Chris Power, a spokesman for the Department of Transitional Assistance, said in an email, “The Department of Transitional Assistance is reinstating the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) effective March 6th as a result of the supplemental budget that was signed by Governor Baker today, and looks forward to working with the Legislature and our partners to promote greater stability for the program.”

Rep. Hannah Kane, a Shrewsbury Republican, said the Legislature’s Food System Caucus met with Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Amy Kershaw Wednesday morning “and are working hard together to ensure HIP operates reliably moving forward.”

“A consistent HIP benefits clients, farmers, and the Commonwealth economy,” Kane said.

Claire Morenon, a spokeswoman for the pro-farming nonprofit Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, which had advocated for the program’s resumption, said, “I’m sure there are a lot of relieved people across the state today — farmers and people who rely on HIP to purchase food alike.”

Asked for her reaction, State Rep. Natalie Blais, a Sunderland Democrat, emailed, “HIP HIP Hooray!”