AT A MONTHLY WINTER FARMERS market run by Roots Rising in Pittsfield, shoppers can buy apples, canned tomatoes, carrots, potatoes, onions, and winter squash. A shopper using SNAP benefits can spend $1 to buy $2 of produce under the state’s Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP.
But as of Feb. 24, shoppers on public benefits will no longer get that extra money. The state is suspending HIP for the winter, with plans to restore it May 15. State officials say the program – which doubles the impact of SNAP benefits when produce is bought from a participating farm – is a victim of its own success and has outgrown its budget.
Without a temporary suspension of the program, state officials say its $6.5 million state appropriation would run out quickly and no money would be left during the busier buying and growing season this summer.
Advocates for farmers and low-income individuals say the loss of HIP will hurt shoppers and sellers. Recently, 89 legislators wrote to Department of Transitional Assistance Commissioner Amy Kershaw protesting the suspension, and the lack of notice.
Jess Vecchia, co-director of the nonprofit Roots Rising, said farmers already planted their crops in anticipation of a certain amount of sales. Shoppers have come to rely on indoor farmers markets to get fresh fruits and vegetables during the winter.
“For us, these programs are really a win, win, win,” Vecchia said. “The farmers benefit because it’s more sales. Shoppers benefit, it’s more fresh, healthy food on their tables. And we benefit as a market because it makes the market more accessible.”
HIP started in 2017 with a federal grant, and with projections that it would cost $1.25 million over three years. It took five months to reach that amount.
State funding has steadily increased. It was $4 million in fiscal 2019, and the program was so successful that it had to be suspended during the winter to make the funds last through the end of the fiscal year. The state, realizing the $6.5 million budget won’t last until the end of June, is taking the same approach this winter.
Asked about the suspension, DTA spokeswoman Brooke Karanovich issued a statement restating that the program is shutting down for the winter to avoid running out of funds in May and June. “We look forward to the program resuming operations on May 15,” she said.
According to state statistics, participants spent around $450,000 in HIP benefits this January, compared to more than $900,000 each month between August and October.
“HIP has been tremendously successful,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, a privately funded organization created to implement the state’s local food action plan. “It has demonstrated that there is demand among low income communities for healthy food… and it’s demonstrated there’s a market for local foods that hasn’t been tapped.”
A Food System Collaborative fact sheet says that since the program started in 2017, 73,000 families have received HIP incentives to buy $15 million worth of food from 200 farms.
In the winter – when heating costs are high and fresh food is harder to get – advocates say the program remains vital. “People eat year-round and they want to eat healthy food year-round,” Pitcoff said.
Pat Baker, senior policy analyst for the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute, said HIP is particularly important to make fresh produce available to seniors while addressing social isolation, since organizations take seniors to farmers markets.
There are winter farmers markets statewide, although they are not as common as in the summer. In the Berkshires, for example, Roots Rising coordinates with other monthly indoor farmers markets so there is a market most weeks.
Farmers rely on the sales, and say HIP makes buying locally grown fresh produce, which is more expensive than grocery store food, an affordable option for many people.
Jessica O’Neill is executive director of Just Roots, which runs Greenfield Community Farm. The farm sells monthly boxes of fresh vegetables for $40, delivered to housing complexes and a community health center. Of around 70 customers for the winter boxes – which include vegetables like onions, carrots and potatoes – around 50 use SNAP benefits. O’Neill estimates 40 will drop out when HIP is suspended.
She predicts the farm will lose $4,800 in sales over the three-month suspension, not counting the time spent finding and enrolling customers. “We can’t ungrow the food, we can’t unbuy the products from our farm partners,” O’Neill said.
For some, the biggest problem is the late notice – the suspension was announced in late January – and the lack of certainty each year about whether HIP will continue.
“Having a program start and stop like this every year it’s been running introduces a level of uncertainty and fear for people who use it,” said Claire Morenon, a spokeswoman for the pro-farming nonprofit Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture.
Michael Gallagher, who co-owns Square Roots Farm in Lanesborough, said he plans in December and January what he will grow the next year. Around one-third of his sales at farmers markets in North Adams and Pittsfield are paid for with SNAP. Gallagher does not plan to sell vegetables through the winter – he just sold his last onions – but he wants to know in advance whether he will have HIP customers or not. “From my perspective, the most important thing is to have consistency and the ability to plan ahead,” Gallagher said.
The 89 legislators, led by Republican Shrewsbury Rep. Hannah Kane and members of the Food System Caucus, complain that DTA did not tell lawmakers about the suspension with enough time to let them appropriate money to avoid it.
“We must register the devastating effects this suspension will have not only on our most vulnerable constituents who rely on the ability to purchase and consume fresh, nutritious locally grown food through this program, but also to the Commonwealth’s farmers who grew surplus crops with the understanding the program was year-round and will now have to sell the food for a fraction of the promised price, or outright donate the crops with no income or tax deduction available for doing so,” the lawmakers wrote DTA Commissioner Kershaw.