Comerford, Whipps to talk food access, local issues at Quabbin Harvest

  • The Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op in Orange is hosting a meet and greet with local legislators on Friday. Staff file photo

Staff Writer
Published: 5/29/2019 6:05:36 PM

ORANGE — Food access and farming, energy and education are just some of the key issues to the North Quabbin region that local legislators will discuss on Friday.

State Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and state Rep. Susannah Whipps, I-Athol, will both be at Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op, 12 North Main St., at 4 p.m. for a meet and greet with constituents.

According to Pat Larson, a member of the Quabbin Harvest board of directors, “Senator Comerford and Representative Whipps will speak briefly about what is currently happening with legislation pertaining to the Healthy Incentives Program, farms, land conservation and other issues such as energy, education and public transportation.”

Hosting the event are Quabbin Harvest and Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, both of which are expected to give statements on local issues.

“This will be a chance to hear what is happening with issues important to people in the district,” Larson said.

Key among these issues is the Healthy Incentives Program — known as HIP — which is starting back up after a period of suspension. The state program offers reimbursements to eligible people who purchase fruits and vegetables at HIP vendors, such as Quabbin Harvest, and has returned as of May 25.

Under the HIP guidelines, households in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — also known as food stamps — are automatically enrolled, receiving $1 for each dollar spent on fruits and vegetables, up to a monthly limit. One- to two-person households may reach a $40 monthly limit, three to five people may reach a $60 limit and houses with six or more people may reach an $80 limit.

The HIP program has struggled with a lack of funding since its establishment in 2017. The program is particularly important in areas like the North Quabbin, Larson said, where, last time it was operating, more than 100 families benefited from buying nutritious food, essentially for free.

Senators like Comerford have been fighting to gain more money for the program, which would allow it to run throughout the year, Larson said.

“Both Sen. Comerford and (state Sen. Anne Gobi), along with other state senators, filed an amendment to the Senate version of the fiscal year 2020 budget to increase funding from $6.5 million to $8.5 million for the Healthy Incentives Program,” Larson said.

“If the $8.5 million is included in the final state budget, then HIP could run year-round,” she added. “Running the incentive program year-round will help both farmers and consumers.”

Other issues to be discussed include the state budget process, specifically the state funding formula, Chapter 70, for public education. Recently, area school officials, like Orange, Petersham and Ralph C. Mahar Regional School Superintendent Tari Thomas, have illuminated the increased costs rural schools face in areas like transportation compared to their urban counterparts. However, there is no rurality factor in the Chapter 70 formula.

Orange’s elementary schools, Orange Finance Committee member Kathy Reinig has pointed out, are also underfunded when it comes to special education, with the state using an “assumed percentage” to calculate how much money the town needs for special education students. Specifically, the Chapter 70 formula calculates, or “assumes,” Orange has 22 (3.5 percent of total enrollment) in-district special education students, when it in fact has 159 such students, creating a roughly $3.5 million gap between what the state thinks Orange needs to fund special education, and what it actually needs, Reinig said.

“Many small towns in this region continue to be concerned with public education and state funding,” Larson said, adding that Comerford and others filed a bill to evaluate the Chapter 70 formula for school districts with declining enrollments.

Before the discussion, there will be a tour of the Quabbin Harvest store at 3:30, which will “give people an opportunity to learn more about the partnership between Quabbin Harvest and Mount Grace Land Conservation Trust, along with hearing about some of the local and regional vendors providing products to the store,” Larson said.

Reach David McLellan at dmclellan@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 268.




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