Healthy Incentives Program will continue through February

The Recorder, November 25, 2018, by Sarah Robertson

Last month, state legislators agreed to transfer unspent funding for the Healthy Incentives Program into the next fiscal year, allowing recipients of food assistance to benefit from the program for an additional two months.

The state agreed to carry over about $1 million left over in last fiscal year’s HIP budget so the program can continue through the winter until Feb. 28, 2019. It was originally slated to end yesterday (Nov. 21) after the regular growing season was over. However, continuing to reimburse purchases of fresh local produce is important not only for recipients of food assistance, but also the farmers who grow the food.

“Continuing this program is really important for farmers,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative. “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.”

At participating food stores, HIP enables Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) recipients to use their EBT cards to purchase food and receive a 100 percent reimbursement. Families receive up to $40 a month for two people, $60 for families of three to five, and $80 families of six or more when they shop at farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) programs, mobile markets and other fresh local vegetable vendors,

The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative has been a major proponent of HIP, using their network of advocates and professionals to campaign on behalf of food assistance recipients across the state.

“It did take some doing on behalf of our advocates,” Pitcoff said, adding that members wrote letters and called legislators to help educate them about the importance of the program.

At Quabbin Harvest, a cooperative food market in downtown Orange, SNAP recipients can purchase farm shares, reimbursed through HIP, that supply them with fresh fruits and vegetables twice a month. The cooperative food market has been the number-one HIP enroller in the state, helping over 120 low-income households buy fresh fruit and vegetables each month, reports the Greenfield Recorder.

Pat Larson, a member of the Quabbin Harvest Board of Directors and Outreach Committee, said that with the program back on, the market can continue to provide farm shares to members currently enrolled in HIP.

“Quabbin Harvest has built good relationships with the current households that are participating,” Larson said. “We want to continue building on relationships with all the customers.”

The Healthy Incentives Program exceeded the state’s expectations and ran out of its initial $3.6 million in funding, meant for three years, in the first year of the program. After running out of money last April, the program was reinstated on May 23 when the state passed a supplemental budget bill with $2.35 million allocated for HIP.

“Based on the current use of the program, that was not enough for the whole year,” Pitcoff said.

Without additional funding in next fiscal year’s budget, HIP will be suspended again at the end of February and start again in the spring.

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

The state’s 2019 fiscal year budget included $4 million for HIP. The $1 million that will allow the program to operate through February was unspent money that needed to be transferred into the next fiscal year, or remain unused. The timing of the May supplemental budget bill caused the apparent excess, when the program still does not receive enough funds to operate year-round.

“This extension is great news and I was glad to work with the administration on this important program that continues to provide locally grown produce to many people,” said Senator Anne Gobi (D-Spencer), Chair of the Joint Committee on the Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture. “A special thanks to the farmers for their commitment to the program and who planted winter crops to provide food to those in need.”

Since the HIP began in April 2017, Pitcoff said the program has grown by about 25 percent each year. He 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.

In the first 10 months of HIP, food assistance recipients purchased more than $3.3 million in local produce through HIP incentives, paid to local farmers and food stores. More than 32,000 families in the state have used HIP in this fiscal year, with 46 percent of those households including a recipient over the age of 60, and 35 percent including a SNAP recipient with a disability.

“Farmers here really stepped up in their participation in this program, and we’ve seen that it’s having an impact on people’s healthy food intake,” Pitcoff said. “To see that continue, we’ve got to keep this program going all year long.”