Columnists Mia Kortebein, Philip Korman, and Christina Maxwell: Massachusetts can address hunger and healthy eating through local farms

Daily Hampshire Gazette, April 23, 2019.

Hunger is everywhere in our Valley, from Amherst to Springfield, from Orange to East Longmeadow.

At the same time, farmers in every town are searching for ways to sell food to more of their neighbors so their farm businesses can survive and thrive in this global marketplace. What we need is a way to connect these two challenges facing our communities.

Massachusetts has led efforts to address these issues together. In 2011, the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) secured a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant to find out if recipients of SNAP (food stamps), when provided a 30 percent rebate on produce, would increase their purchase and consumption of fruits and vegetables.

This study, conducted in Hampden County, proved that the answer is a definitive yes. In fact, study participants increased their produce intake by 24 percent, a significant change projected to make a difference in participants’ health over the long-term.

The results of the Hampden County study had national implications, and the USDA began funding programs throughout the United States to provide “healthy incentives.” In 2017, the DTA used these new funds to create the state’s innovative Healthy Incentives Program, which designates Massachusetts farmers as the sole vendors of its produce.

The Healthy Incentives Program, known as HIP, now provides Massachusetts SNAP recipients with an instant rebate of at least $40 per month when they purchase fruits and vegetables from our local farmers. This statewide program is the only one of its kind in the country.

In two years’ time, 55,000 households with more than 100,000 individuals were able to purchase local fruits and vegetables. Two hundred local farm businesses sold them $9 million worth of produce. HIP has resulted in additional sales for farms, better quality of life for HIP customers, and an additional positive impact for communities throughout our state by keeping federal and state dollars flowing through our communities.

It has also reduced health-care costs. Last month, scientists published promising research on the cost-effectiveness of a financial incentive like HIP for people on Medicare and Medicaid. Their research model predicted that a system that financially incentivizes healthier eating would pay for itself within just five years by lowering cardiovascular and diabetes health care costs. We believe that HIP can result in similar positive outcomes over time.

Real life seems to confirm this research. We hear stories about HIP’s impact on health outcomes from our neighbors who are using the HIP incentives. Jeannie, a customer at the Northampton Winter Farmers’ Market, told us, “I’ve noticed a huge difference in how I feel. It’s helped me to manage my pain. A lot of medications I used to be on, I’m not on anymore because I’ve lowered my blood sugar (and) cholesterol.”

Her doctor was surprised at how much her health had improved and asked her about her regimen. She responded, “I’m eating all this local food!”

This program sounds great. So what’s the problem?

The state of Massachusetts is in the middle of budget season, during which time legislators make choices about which programs to fund and at what level. This includes the Healthy Incentives Program.

HIP is a common-sense program, and we’re grateful to the Baker administration and the state Legislature for funding it for the past two years. But the amount allocated to HIP each year has not been sufficient to include enough farmers in the HIP system to reach every community. And it hasn’t been enough to keep the program from shutting down for months at a time each year.

If HIP is suspended again this year due to lack of funds, it will be both costly and confusing.

Farmers are planting now and need to make solid business decisions about the crops they’ll be harvesting in six months. HIP shoppers eat all year round and depend on this local produce to prepare healthy meals for their families.

We all have a role to play in helping ensure that HIP is fully funded, and that food grown by our farmers can reach those in need in our communities. We can each remind our elected officials about how our state has led in the recent past and urge them to continue to make us a national leader by supporting this program. Already, across the state, more than two-thirds of state representatives have taken a public stand in favor of fully funding the HIP Program. But to be successful, we need every legislator on board.

Please contact your state legislators and ask them to support local farms and healthy families all year round by fully funding the Healthy Incentives Program at $8.5 million—details here.

Mia Kortebein is a program coordinator for Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, and Philip Korman is its executive director. Christina Maxwell is director of programs for The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield.