State Helps Lead Way in Getting Locally Grown Foods to Low-Income Families

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, August 19th, 2015, by Philip Korman (CISA), Jeff Cole (Mass. Farmers’ Markets), Andrew Morehouse (Food Bank of Western Mass), Ellen Parker (Project Bread), and Frank Mangan (UMass Extension)

The Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance recently created a win-win situation for the Commonwealth, seizing a chance to improve public health, build our economy and support local farmers.

Building on its vision to improve the health status of all residents, the department received $3.4 million from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to increase fruit and vegetable purchases via SNAP benefits at farmers’ markets, farm stands, CSA distributions and mobile markets.

The grant was one of only eight large-scale Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grants in the country. It will begin in full force by April 2017 and go to March 2020. We are thrilled with the state’s leadership in developing a program that will promote local and fresh fruits and vegetables, invest in the health of residents with lower incomes, support local farms and farmers’ markets and grow our state economy.

Only one quarter of Massachusetts adults eat the recommended amounts of fruits and vegetables per day, according to a 2013 report by the Massachusetts Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System. Pioneering research in Hampden County in 2012 indicated that providing a financial incentive for fruit and vegetable purchases can result in a substantial increase in their consumption, helping to reduce the enormous public health costs associated with obesity and poor nutrition. The Department of Transitional Assistance’s Healthy Incentives Pilot was a one-of-a-kind research program and the only one funded by the USDA in the nation.

Massachusetts is now uniquely positioned to expand this successful pilot across the state.

Massachusetts farmers are ready to grow and sell more healthy local food and to put additional earnings back into the economy with more local jobs and spending to support it.

The Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts Amherst is helping farmers to test and plant new crops sought by growing immigrant and ethnic communities. One third of the SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are Latino, with the largest ethnicities being Puerto Rican, Dominican, Brazilian and Central American. They are all looking for crops popular in their countries of origin, which matches the desire of local farmers to expand their markets to reach more residents.

This grant serves the current administration’s commitment to maximize the impact of federal dollars in the Commonwealth by funneling SNAP dollars to local farms. Every year the number of farmers’ markets accepting SNAP and the dollar value of SNAP benefits spent at farmers’ markets, farms stands, CSA farms and mobile markets has increased.

Yet out of the over $1 billion in SNAP spent annually, only $366,000 was spent at one of these locations, according to USDA figures. If every SNAP household in the state shifted $5 a month of their food budget to local fruits and vegetables, that would result in $15.6 million more dollars in the local economy and 308 new jobs.

The food insecurity nutrition program will involve the departments of Agricultural Resources and Public Health, nonprofit organizations and community institutions such as health centers and churches to educate SNAP recipients about this incentive.

It will also connect growers and residents in the state through person-to-person relationships and is a powerful and appealing way to draw in new fruit and vegetable customers and keep them coming year after year.

Gov. Charlie Baker understands the impact that healthy diets can have on community health and health care costs. The state’s commitment to this project will yield rewards. We applaud the effort to expand access to healthy food to all citizens, regardless of their circumstances, while looking to our farmers to grow food for them and supporting, generally, the local agricultural economy throughout the Commonwealth.

Philip Korman is executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA). Jeff Cole is executive director of Massachusetts Farmers Markets. Andrew Morehouse is executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts in Hatfield. Ellen Parker is the Executive Director of Project Bread. Frank Mangan is a Professor with the UMass Amherst Center for Agriculture, Food, and the Environment.