State suspends HIP from Feb. 23 to May 15

Money again runs short for food benefits boosting local farm produce

By ANITA FRITZ, Staff Writer, The Recorder, February 3, 2020

The state is once again temporarily suspending its Health Incentives Program, leaving SNAP recipients and some local farmers in Franklin County and the North Quabbin region facing an even tougher winter without the ability to stretch their food dollars or sell their produce.

The seasonal suspension of the benefits that provide an automatic rebate when shoppers use SNAP, formerly known as food stamps, so they can buy produce from participating local farms, will begin at the end of Sunday, Feb. 23, and resume Friday, May 15. There has been a suspension every year since the program started in 2017.

The state Department of Transitional Assistance, which runs the program, announced the suspension last week.

The HIP program allows SNAP recipients to earn benefits at participating farms, but because of the suspension, only through Feb. 23; from Feb. 24 through May 14, the HIP program will be inactive and SNAP recipients will not be able to earn those benefits, though SNAP benefits will not be interrupted.

HIP benefits earned before the suspension can be spent through the end of February.

“HIP has helped 71,000 families purchase $14.1 million of local produce since its inception in 2017,” CISA Executive Director Philip Korman said. “It has brought immense benefits to local farmers, families who rely on SNAP, and our local economy. Its suspension means an interruption in benefits for hungry people and a loss of a reliable market for farmers, which is why CISA is part of a broad coalition of partner agencies and supporters who are advocating for year-round funding to be included in the state budget.”

According to CISA, when HIP is running, shoppers use SNAP to buy fruits and vegetables from a participating farm and they receive an instant rebate applied directly to their SNAP account. Those funds are available immediately for any future SNAP purchase. All SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are automatically enrolled in the HIP program, and both programs are administered through the same EBT card. For households of one to two people, the HIP rebate amount is $40 per month; for families of three to five people, it is $60 per month; and for more than six people, it is $80 per month.

CISA Communications Manager Claire Morenon said advocates are looking for the state to add more money to its budget for HIP, because it hasn’t been able to get through an entire year of funding it because it is so popular.

Morenon said it would be much better for all participants, including farmers, to have no interruptions.

“There’s just always this level of uncertainty,” she said.

Winton Pitcoff, director of Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which promotes, monitors and facilitates the implementation of the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, said the program has become increasingly successful each year.

“It’s transformative for families’ access to healthy food,” he said. “And, there’s a lot more sales for local farmers.”

Pitcoff said HIP helps sustain local businesses, as well as county residents. He said it grew faster than anticipated, and while the state has been supportive, the budget has not increased enough to keep it going throughout the year.

“It’s disruptive to people eating well and to farmers getting what they expected from sales,” Pitcoff said. “Pa r t i c ipants are only given a few weeks’ notice about suspensions, so it’s hard to plan.”

Pitcoff said the way people earn HIP benefits is if they spend $5 on tomatoes, they receive $5 to spend on something else, like, for instance, cereal.

“Their food dollars are doubled up to a certain amount each month,” he said. “That’s huge for them.”

He said people still have time to earn HIP credits, so they should do so and spend them before the end of the month.

According to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, HIP increases access to fresh, local produce and helps stretch SNAP dollars without extra paperwork. It also rewards SNAP recipients for buying local produce at designated locations, so it’s a winwin for farmers and families. It allows SNAP recipients to grow their own fruits and vegetables, if they choose, by purchasing food-producing plants and seeds.

As for state and local economies, HIP has provided local farms who are HIP vendors with more than $9 million in revenue across the state, increasing the amount of state income tax collected from them. It has also increased access to nutritious foods for SNAP recipients, which has meant lower health care costs for state-run health programs, and it has broadened the customer base for many small local farms struggling to increase their revenue.

According to statistics on the D TA’s website, about 32 percent of Franklin County households receive HIP benefits. The agency does not offer the number of people the suspension will affect.

There are places to earn HIP benefits before the suspension on Feb. 23, though, Korman said. Not all farms accept HIP, but the ones that do can accept HIP at farmers markets, farm stands and through CSAs. For more information on participating HIP farms, including links to their pages and hours of operation, see the HIP Pioneer Valley page on Fa c e b o o k .

In the meantime, HIP, processed by individual vendors, were honored at Greenfield Winter Farmers Market on Saturday.

HIP will also be honored at the following farm stands in Franklin County: Atlas Farm on Greenfield Road (Routes 5 and 10) in South Deerfield; Clarkdale Fruit Farms on Upper Road in Deerfield; Hager ’s Farm Market on Route 2 (Mohawk Trail) in Shelburne; Sweet Mnoinrg Farm on Greenfield Road in Leyden; and Upinngil Farm on Main Road in Gill.

Winter CSAs are also accepting HIP until the suspension: Just Roots, pickup or delivery at multiple locations in Greenfield (413-325-8969); Natural Roots, pickup in Conway (413-369-4269); Quabbin Har vest, pickup in Orange (978544-6784); Red Fire Farm, pickup in Montague (413-4677645).

CISA is an organization of farmers, community members and advocates working together to strengthen farms and engage the community to build the local food economy. Working in western Massachusetts and the region for more than 25 years, CISA offers assistance to farmers, provides farm shares for low-income seniors and runs the nation’s oldest agricultural buy local campaign, “Be a Local Hero, Buy Locally Grown.” Find out more about our work to double the amount of local food in our diets at: w w w.b u y l o c a l f o o d .o r g. Call CISA at 413-665-7100. Also visit: www.mass.gov/hip.

Reach Anita Fritz at 413772-0261, ext. 269, or afritz@ recorder.c o m .

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