December 7, 2022

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Health's Like Heaven.

‘A win-win’: Farmers, advocates call for state to make permanent a program that allows 100,000 people to use SNAP benefits at farmer’s markets

4 min read

A line formed outside the farmer’s market located at Beaver Brook Park off of Chandler Street in Worcester on Friday morning. At 9 a.m. a cowbell rang. The gates opened and dozens of people dispersed across several vendors.

Many of those examining the fresh corn, broccoli, peas and other produce, eventually paid for the food through Massachusetts’ Health Incentive Program (HIP), which allows people who are eligible for SNAP benefits (often referred to as food stamps) to use their EBT card to pay for goods at farmer’s markets.

“Often there is this misconception that low-income families don’t want to eat healthy food,” CEO and President of Project Bread Erin McAleer said. “This program has proven that that’s just factually inaccurate. The reality is healthy food is often cost-prohibitive.”

McAleer said about 100,000 people participate in HIP at farmer’s markets annually. Scott Johnson, a farmer at the market on Friday, said about 65% of the people who purchase products from him use the EBT cards.

“It’s worked out real well for us,” Johnson said. “And it’s good that people have fresh produce available to them. So it’s kind of a win-win for both.”

The program, though, isn’t permanent. Instead, the state legislature renews it annually. Advocates of HIP like McAleer aren’t necessarily fearful the program will cease to exist. However, she and elected officials like City Councilor Sarai Rivera and State Rep. David LeBoeuf believes making the program permanent will only benefit both the customers and farmers.

“It’s important for the people who use SNAP because it’s a tremendous resource for stretching food budgets,” Director of Program for the Regional Environmental Council Grace Sliwoski said. “But it’s also tremendously important for our farming community.”

Sliwoski said Central Massachusetts has the highest concentration of farms within the state. Many like Johnson rely on HIP as part of their revenue in addition to commercial sales and other markets. However, the yearly renewal often causes pauses in service when funding runs out or early termination at the end of the year.

The uncertainty often causes farmers to miscalculate how much to grow.

“It will allow farmers to count on and plan on this program as they are building their business plans and crop plans,” Sliwoski said. “A lot of people who aren’t farmers don’t understand how forward-thinking farming is. You really have to plan very far in advance.”

Making the program permanent would ensure funding but also raise awareness to extend the services beyond current locations. Expansion of the program would then allow farmers to produce more crops.

Sliwoski said only about 10% of SNAP users in Worcester County are able to use the Healthy Incentive Program.

Sliwoski said the low number is a result of a lack of awareness but also SNAP users not having access to a farmer’s market nearby.

To fill that gap, the Regional Environmental Council has brought mobile markets across Worcester County. The council targets communities in need of a farmer’s market but has yet to develop a demand to sustain ones such as in senior housing and public housing.

A van packed with local fresh produce shuttles across the state to ensure SNAP users who want to shop for fresh fruit and vegetables at farmers’ markets have that opportunity.

“We are able to pivot really easily,” Sliwoski said. “Our stops are only an hour to an hour and a half. That also enables us to insulate us a little bit from the economic risk of serving really vulnerable communities. Because we go to so many locations, if any particular location isn’t really successful, it kind of all balances out.”

LeBoeuf said a bill to make HIP permanent was filed before the Committee for Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities in the state legislature.

The lawmaker who represents Worcester’s Main South neighborhood and part of Leicester said the bill has overwhelming support.

“It’s an economic win not only for families in providing health and wellness but also for the farmers in the area,” LeBoeuf said.

Sliwoski said the need to address food insecurity should be paramount in Massachusetts, which saw its food insecurity problem exacerbate at higher levels than any other state in the country.

One step in addressing that issue is making HIP permanent.

“It’s so important. It’s an economic stimulus,” McAleer said. “It helps low-income people afford healthy fruits and vegetables. It’s a win-win. We just want it to be a permanent program.”

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