A new state program starting this month will offer a financial incentive to Massachusetts residents on limited incomes to eat more locally grown fruits and vegetables.
People who receive SNAP dollars, which used to be called food stamps, can take advantage of the the HIP or Healthy Incentives Program. If someone buys produce using SNAP dollars at a farmers market, mobile market, farm stand or community supported farm, the amount of the purchase will be deposited right back into their SNAP account.
Winton Pitcoff is with the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative, which is helping to launch the program.
"We're really trying to incentivize both the purchasing of healthy foods for folks who tend to not have easy access to those foods, and to incentivize those purchases from local farms so that the money is staying in the local economy," Pitcoff said.
For instance, if a SNAP recipient buys a head of lettuce at a farm stand for $2, another $2 will automatically be added to their account. There's a limit of $40 to $80 per month depending on the size of the household. The consumer can use that money right away to buy something directly from a farmer or later at a grocery store.
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The U.S. Department of Agriculture has provided $3.4 million in funding. But Pitcoff said the program costs double that. He said his group is seeking $800,000 from the state to buy EBT terminals for each farmer that wants to participate. The machines process the purchase and deposit the funds back into SNAP accounts. Each one costs $661 a year, including fees.
About two dozen farmers are already set up. But others like, Maureen Dempsey from Intervale Farm in Westhampton, are still waiting for terminals.
"I went to see if I could apply for a grant to get a machine," Dempsey said. "And a notice came up saying that their funds were no longer available...so I could be put on a waiting list. So I'm just not sure now how that's going to work."
What it means is the program is still being rolled out. The state expects to have funds available by the time the farmers market season -- is in full swing.
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Dempsey who helps run the farmers market in Florence, Massachusetts, said this program is really important.
"I think it's important to have local access to healthy foods for everybody, no matter what your income," she said. "You shouldn't be prevented from going to a place like a farmers market and purchasing really healthy fresh vegetables and fruits because you can't afford to."
The USDA based the incentives program on a pilot project that ran in Hampden County. On average, participants ate almost a quarter of a cup more fruits and vegetables each day.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said the cap on refunds ranges from $20 to $80 per household. The range is actually $40 to $80.