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Future of Healthy Incentives Program uncertain

  • Meryl Latronica sets out produce for Just Roots’ weekly CSA distribution and farmers market next to Green Fields Market in Greenfield last November. Just Roots serves HIP recipients. RECORDER FILE/DAN LITTLE


Recorder Staff
Wednesday, March 21, 2018

By RICHIE DAVIS

A wildly successful program that’s been getting fresh, local produce to SNAP recipients at discount prices will face a likely 2½-month hiatus next month because it ran out of three years of funding in less than one year.

The Healthy Incentives Program — which essentially doubles SNAP benefits for local produce and vegetable plants at farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture programs and farm stands — has been so successful that it ate up $3.6 million in state-provided incentives in just 11 months.

Rather than being a victim of its own success, the state’s experience with matching food stamp benefits for buying local produce has shown that everyone would favor eating fresh, local farm products if they could, says Philip Korman, executive director of Deerfield-based Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA).

Now, with state Department of Transitional Assistance set to notify by robo-calls a pause in HIP benefits from mid-April through the July 1 start of the state’s budget year, Korman says, “We need to recalibrate and understand that hunger’s a serious issue, and that people, regardless of their resource level, want to be buying from local farmers, and it will improve the health of everyone.”

The program improves the health of farms, as well as the local economy, argue CISA and a host of other “buy local” campaigns, food banks and other groups around the state, which are calling for $6.2 million in funding in the next state budget — nearly triple Gov. Charlie Baker’s proposal to maintain the program at $1.35 million.

Franklin County SNAP recipients have received nearly $104,000 worth of additional local produce under HIP under the first 10 months of the program, while Franklin County farmers — many of whom sell elsewhere around the state — have earned an extra $260,000 in that time.

That the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s three-year, $3.4 million program in Massachusetts — matched by funding from the state, along with some private dollars — ran out of money early “sort of blows out of the water a couple of persistent myths about the Massachusetts food system ... that we’ve reached everyone who wants to purchase local food, that interest in it has hit a bubble,” says Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which leads the nation’s first comprehensive healthy-eating program of its kind. “It turns out there are more markets available to farmers. Also (disproving) the myth that low-income families don’t care what they feed their families.”

Pitcoff said that level-funding the program next year at $1.35 million — without the benefit of the grant from USDA plus its required match — would enable HIP to last only “six to eight weeks” this coming summer.

“The impact on the local economy is that all that money has been staying on local farms,” he said, along with their employees and local businesses they, and those employees, patronize.

The collaborative is also seeking $1.5 million just to get HIP extended, without a pause, until the new budget year kicks in, says Pitcoff, pointing to the damage to both shoppers, who have worked to change their habits, and farmers, who have invested in planting, and in some cases equipment, to ramp up for increased sales.

Korman says the state, which has invested in finding a creative solution to address hunger, public health, local economic growth and boost agriculture, now faces a key question with HIP: “Now it’s time for Massachusetts to decide, is this a commonwealth? Do we feel it’s important to continue funding a program that’s shown its worth in an immediate way?”

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, who is also vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said he’s interested in attaching a request for continued HIP funding in a supplemental budget that’s being worked on for the remainder of the fiscal year, and he supports the idea of increasing funding for the coming year’s budget beyond what Baker has requested — although he stopped short of saying whether the $6.2 million being sought is realistic, given other budgetary pressures.

“We’re just so lucky to have the HIP program in Massachusetts,” said Kulik, adding that he’s interested in seeing what additional private support might be available as well. “We need to support it. It’s struck such a strong response among growers and SNAP recipients that I hope it will continue.”

Among the 200 farmers and farm markets that are participating is the Greenfield Community Farm, which has experienced a 25 percent increase in its sales at the Greenfield Farmers Market this season, as well as a boost in the number of its CSA shares — with some low-income customers even purchasing full-price shares rather than relying on its limited number of subsidized shares.

“We’ve never been able to do that before,” said Jessica Van Steensburg, executive director of Just Roots, which operates the farm.

According to a survey of its HIP customers, 25 percent say they wouldn’t be able to buy the farm’s fresh produce without HIP.

“That has lots of implications for us,” Van Steensburg says. “How do you plan for that if (customers are) signing up for the whole season and the organization’s counting on that income?” Without HIP in place next year, she estimated an $11,000 loss in CSA income and another $4,000 loss at farmers market sales.

“This is a benefit, but what it really is is health,” she says. “It’s getting fresh food to people, and we’re allowing them to make healthy choices and building health equity.”

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