HIP to shut off benefits before Thanksgiving

The Daily Hampshire Gazette,October 4, 2018, by Richie Davis

The state plans to temporarily shut off Healthy Incentives Program benefits just before Thanksgiving to extend funding for the wildly popular program that doubles benefits for food stamp recipients buying locally grown food.

Without another helping of state funding later in the year, the program’s seasonal halt may simply be a reminder at holiday time of initiatives to be thankful for.

The wildly successful program operated by the state Department of Transitional Assistance spent $1.4 million of its $4 million appropriation in the first two months of this budget year, July and August, according to the department. It also added 7,600 new households to the program, which provides Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients with a dollar-for-dollar rebate for benefits spent on local produce at farmers’ markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs and farm stands.

“They would like to save some of the $4 million to use in the spring, so the idea is if they stop (the program) the Wednesday of Thanksgiving week, they will have some money left and will be able to do an estimate of when to start it in the spring,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which leads the nation’s first comprehensive healthy-eating program of its kind.

A year ago, HIP benefits exceeded the program’s initial $1.25 million, and the popularity of the program outpaced funding so that the program was suspended in mid-April.

Program advocates sought $6.2 million for HIP in the budget year that began July 1, but $4 million was appropriated.

HIP provides recipients with a $1 credit for every $1 in SNAP benefits spent on eligible produce, up to a monthly $40 limit for a one or two-person household, a $60 limit for households of up to five, or $80 for larger households.

The program is operating on “a seasonal schedule,” according to information provided by DTA, “beginning in the spring and running through late November to enable clients to use their benefits during the peak growing season.”

Nearly half of the 27,000 households receiving HIP – 47 percent – have a recipient age 60 or older, 35 percent of HIP recipients have a disability and 29 percent of households have a member under age 18.

According to Pitcoff, DTA originally was considering a program cutoff two weeks earlier in November, but were convinced to allow it to continue for people who use the benefits to buy local potatoes, squash, carrots and other produce for Thanksgiving.

“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. “We also have hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have enough food. It makes all the sense in the world to connect the people who grow food, with the people who need food, so that there’s a stronger, interwoven community that’s not depending on food from thousands of miles away.”

Last year, Korman said, 200 farmers statewide participated in HIP, which generated $4 million in commerce.

“It’s quite an incentive,” he said, “and it moves produce as a higher item of desirability,’ with the aim of getting more nutritious, locally grown fruits and vegetables on people’s plates.