State House backs $2M more for HIP program

By ANITA FRITZ , The Recorder, March 3, 2020

The House has overwhelmingly approved another $2 million for the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) to put an end to the temporary suspension and restore the program before the original reinstatement date of May 15.

According to Rep. Paul Mark, D-Peru, if all goes well and the state Senate acts quickly, the Healthy Incentives Program could be reinstated within the next few weeks. He said he and the House moved fast, so he anticipates the Senate will do the same. The program was temporarily suspended Sunday, Feb. 23.

The Healthy Incentives Program began in 2017 and was meant to be a year-round program, but has been suspended every year since it was created because so many people need it and the states runs out of money to support it.

That has left SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients and some farmers in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region facing even tougher winters without the ability to stretch their food dollars or sell their produce, meats and dairy, Mark said.

“I’ve been filing bills for years to make HIP a permanent, year-round program that is funded like it should be,” Mark said. “It’s an important program, especially for Franklin County and the North Quabbin.”

Mark said the state should never need to suspend the program and disrupt people’s lives, leaving them to wonder how they will get by for several months.

“What the House has done is a big step forward,” he said. “We hope the Senate does the same.”

If that happens, the request would go to Gov. Charlie Baker for his signature and the money would be available so the program could be restored immediately.

“I hope we get to a point where we don’t have to vote for more money, but fund it so there are no suspensions,” Mark said.

The program provides an automatic rebate when shoppers use SNAP, so they can buy produce from participating local farms. The state Department of Transitional Assistance runs the program, and all SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are automatically enrolled in HIP.

According to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) Executive Director Philip Korman, the Healthy Incentives Program has helped 71,000 families purchase $14.1 million of local produce since its inception in 2017, and has brought immense benefits to local farmers, families who rely on SNAP and the local economy.

Winton Pitcoff, director of Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, said the program has been “transformative for many people.”

Since its inception, HIP has provided local farmers who are HIP vendors with more than $9 million in revenue across the state, increasing the amount of state income tax collected from them.

According to statistics on the Department of Transitional Assistance’s website, about 32 percent of Franklin County households receive HIP benefits. The agency does not offer the number of people the suspension has affected.

In February, at least 89 lawmakers, including the legislators who make up the Western Massachusetts delegation, sent a letter to the governor and lieutenant governor expressing their “deep disappointment” over the administration’s suspension of the Healthy Incentives Program again this year.

“HIP not only benefits our farmers, but also the people who rely on the program for healthy fruits and vegetables,” Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said at the time. “It is an investment in our future in terms of the economic security of our farms and the health and well-being of our neighbors.”

The letter, which was also signed by Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, read that state legislators — Democrats and Republicans — share the goal of ensuring the Healthy Incentives Program does not again experience such a suspension.

“HIP is highly effective at battling rising food insecurity,” said Comerford, who chairs the Food Systems Caucus. “It’s an economic boost for struggling farmers and it bolsters local economies.”

Reach Anita Fritz at 413-772-0261, ext. 269 or