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Fresh Food Program’s Success In Mass. Contributes To Its Demise

Bok choy and lettuce from a Massachusetts farm.
Tim Sackton
Creative Commons / flickr.com/photos/sackton
Bok choy and lettuce from a Massachusetts farm.

Massachusetts residents who have been using what used to be called food stamps to buy fruits and veggies from farmers markets and farm stands have been getting a bonus for those purchases.

The government puts some of that money back on their benefits card.

Less than a year into what was supposed to a three-year effort, the Healthy Incentives Program will soon run out of money.

Winton Pitcoff leads the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which has studied the state's local food system.

Winton Pitcoff: For consumers, the program has meant access to fresh, healthy local food for folks who traditionally haven't had access. People on SNAP benefits have very limited resources to afford good food, and this gives them an opportunity to shop at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets and CSAs, and get an incentive to buy that food for their family.

Carrie Healy, NEPR: Can you explain what the funding layout of the program for the future is looking like?

The program is funded on a year-to-year basis by the state, at this point. The original design was to fund it for three years, but those resources have been spent because of the overwhelming demand.

What we're working on now, beyond this initial concern about the suspension from April to July, is getting the state to invest resources in keeping the incentives going on an ongoing basis.

The collaborative right now is leading a campaign to ask the state for $6.2 million in the fiscal year '19 budget, which starts on July 1, to fund the incentives. Hopefully we'll get that. And hopefully, that will be the beginning of an ongoing commitment to fund the program at that level, or whatever level demand ends up being.

Is $6.2 million fully funded?

That's a good question. It's hard to estimate at this point, because the growth was so incredible in the first year. We obviously hope to reach more clients. That number was an estimate that came out in early winter. It's hard to say, in advance, if that would be enough.

There is another side. I suppose some could say that the program has only existed for about a year, and low-income clients have survived without it. Have you heard any pushback to that program?

We haven't heard pushback to the fundamentals of the program. Obviously, there's a cost to it. The state has, for a long time, indicated great support for helping people with limited means to access healthy food. And the state has also expressed ongoing support for local farms.

That comes with a price tag, and now it's an issue, now that we've seen what can be done when we invest in that. The state leaders have to decide how much of a price tag they're willing to spend on that.

A spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance provided us with a statement. They say that since April 2017, HIP provided over $3.3 million in incentive matching payments to SNAP clients. That means $3.3 million was then spent at farmers markets, farm stands, and in farm share programs. Do you get a sense of what two and a half months without that revenue will do to those local farms and farm markets?

It'll become very difficult for the program to carry out its mission if it's suspended, as they're talking about doing.

The farms have planted crops and made projections, as any business does, based on their sales for last year, and that included a big chunk of sales from the Healthy Incentives Program. It's going to be really problematic for both consumers and for farmers.

Do you have specific concerns about SNAP clients continuing to have food access, security and health while this program is suspended?

I do. This is about changing people’s eating habits, and thereby changing their health outcomes.

We've spoken to folks who, because of the program, really transformed how their families eat. 

If you get people out of that habit, and they get back in the habit of simply buying groceries based on what they can afford, they're going to go back to the processed food that's much more readily available to them. It’s going to be a challenge to get them back up to speed when the program starts up again in early July.

Carrie Healy hosts the local broadcast of "Morning Edition" at NEPM. She also hosts the station’s weekly government and politics segment “Beacon Hill In 5” for broadcast radio and podcast syndication.
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