Great Barrington — Some government programs are money pits. Others are expensive but provide essential services. Then there is the HIP program.
A small collection of public officials and local stakeholders congregated in a corner of the Great Barrington Farmers Market Saturday morning to tout a state program that makes healthy wholesome food more accessible to low-income consumers, while opening up new markets for local farmers.
Its boosters say the Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program is an innovative, program that results in healthy choices for low-income residents and a more robust market for locally grown food.
The underlying premise is that low-income people want to eat healthfully but struggle to afford to pay for better food options since a box of arugula is much pricier than, say, a box of Cocoa Puffs.
Enter HIP, which allows beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, to use their EBT card to buy produce at participating locally owned retail outlets.
“So it’s really a success story and it shows the value of connecting issues within the food system, connecting agriculture to food access and to public health and coming up with programs and models that really work for everybody,” said Winton Pitcoff who directs the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, a network of food system advocacy organizations in the state.
But it’s more than a program that makes it easier for SNAP recipients to purchase wholesome food. When SNAP recipients use their EBT cards to purchase eligible fruits and vegetables at participating farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets, and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs, HIP automatically credits their account with a one-to-one match of up to $80 per month, depending upon household size. Earned HIP incentives can then be used towards any future SNAP purchase.
“I’ve been in legislature for 15 years and the fact that we can have a SNAP benefit program at a farmers market,” said state Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli, D-Lenox. “It’s really kind of a no-brainer. And it’s amazing we didn’t do this before.”
The three-year program, launched in April of this year, is supported by a $3.4 million grant from U.S. Department of Agriculture, and recently received $1.35 million in funding from the state in this year’s budget, with the support from Pignatelli, who chairs the Joint Committee on Environment, Natural Resources and Agriculture.
To date the program has distributed more than $1.5 million in incentives, helping to sustain local farms and improve health outcomes for some of Massachusetts’ most vulnerable households, Pitcoff said.
There are nearly 300 farms and markets participating in the program, and more are coming online every week. More than 30,000 households have taken advantage of the benefit, providing their families with healthy food and Massachusetts farmers with increased sales.
“And that money stays in the state,” Pitcoff explained. “It goes to farmers and back into the local economy, helping farmers protect their land, helping protect the environment and so it’s really a win-win program for everybody.”
Elizabeth Keen, who owns and operates Indian Line Farm in Egremont, is participating in the HIP and has had a very positive experience so far.
Keen said she applied for admission to the program as a vendor and had to “wait awhile to get the machine” that processes customer EBT cards. That machine turned out to be an iPad that proved to be “super easy to work with.”
“I’ve been farming for 20 years,” Keen said. “The HIP program for us has been sort of an extension of working with the low-income coupons that we get. It has been very helpful.”
“The concept of eating healthy shouldn’t be unique but sadly it is,” Pignatelli said. “If we treat people equally regardless of their economic status, it becomes habitual and I think we can have a healthy Massachusetts.”
Pitcoff wanted to dispel two myths about healthful food and low-income people:
“Number one is that we’ve reached a plateau, that there are no new [healthy food] markets to reach and that it’s sort of leveling off … the other myth is that low-income folks don’t care about what they eat. The fact is they do. It just needs to be made more accessible to them. And that’s what this program does.”
The program, which is available to the more than 440,000 families in the state that receive SNAP benefits and are therefore eligible for the HIP, is administered by the state Department of Transitional Assistance, in partnership with the Department of Agricultural Resources, the Department of Public Health, and a coalition of more than 40 nonprofit organizations, Pitcoff said.
As far as Pitcoff and Pignatelli are concerned, it’s money well spent if it means more people develop the lifelong habit of eating healthfully. Besides, it would lead to better health outcomes for low-income families, which will result in reduced healthcare costs. Both men said they hope the program is renewed when it expires on March 31, 2020.
“We’ve been at the forefront of so many positive things in [Massachusetts],” Pignatelli said. “This is another example of how partnering with the federal government can make good things can happen.”
See video below of the get together and information session organized by the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative and Berkshire Grown at the Great Barrington Farmers Market. Massachusetts State Rep. William “Smitty” Pignatelli joins Barbara Zheutlin (Berkshire Grown), Winton Pitcoff (Mass. Food System Collaborative) and Elizabeth Keen (Indian Line Farm in Egremont) to talk about the state Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) at the Great Barrington Farmers Market: