Jun. 30—One of the great benefits of this season is the proliferation of area farmers markets and farm stands, offering up the best in fresh local fruits, vegetables, milk, eggs and meat. The availability of locally grown products can broaden many a palate, and they can certainly raise the bar for healthier diets.
Thanks to recent action by state Sen. Anne Gobi, a Spencer Democrat, who successfully pushed to have an amendment included in the state budget to ensure the year-long operation of the Healthy Incentives Program, thousands of people facing food insecurity can continue buying healthy foods with this subsidy.
HIP, which was launched in 2017, provides a dollar-for-dollar match for each Supplemental Nutrition Access Program dollar spent. SNAP, which used to be called food stamps, helps people who meet certain income measures to buy food, while the HIP benefit can be used specifically on fresh produce grown by local farmers. Some 63,000 Bay State households used HIP benefits in the last fiscal year at local farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) programs.
The program has many supporters among Massachusetts farmers, many of whom accept HIP payment for their produce. With its goal of increasing access to locally grown produce for SNAP clients, the program helps families buy healthy foods while supporting farms and the local economy.
Farmers markets in Newburyport and Andover, for example, include farmers who welcome purchases through HIP, making the markets even more of a magnet for people looking for everything from kale and kohlrabi to zucchini and strawberries.
Ellen Townson, who works to address food insecurity in the Merrimack Valley, recently told reporter Madeline Hughes that Andover has nearly 1,500 people who receive SNAP benefits, which they can easily use at the weekly farmers market. There’s even an information booth where people can cash in their benefits for tokens to give to vendors who are not able to take SNAP benefits directly.
The Andover market also did fundraising so it can match $10 for every SNAP recipient each week, making their ability to buy healthy foods even better.
“I want people to know about that because no one should be hungry and have access to fresh food,” Townson said.
People who are facing food insecurity know when they’ve hit that wall. So what could keep them from going to the state’s website and applying for SNAP benefits?
The Greater Boston Food Bank looked at adults facing food insecurity during the pandemic and found only 1 in 3 reported using food pantries and 1 in 2 reported using SNAP benefits. According to the Food Bank, “The majority of those who experienced food insecurity but didn’t utilize either resource chose not to because of their desire to support themselves. A desire for self-sufficiency was cited as the number one reason for not using food pantries (74%) and the number two reason for not participating in SNAP (73%).”
Other reasons cited included embarrassment (58% of those who didn’t go to a food pantry; 46% of those who didn’t participate in SNAP), or a fear other people would find out.
Gobi, the state senator who pushed to include HIP funding for the coming year, is co-chair of the Massachusetts Legislative Food Systems Caucus and said she has seen firsthand the success that HIP has had since it began.
When her amendment was included in the Senate’s version of the state budget, she touted the program’s benefits.
“Every dollar spent stays in the state,” she said. “It goes back into the local economy, helping farmers protect their land and helping our citizens stay fit and able to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables over less healthy options with their SNAP dollars.”
Making sure everyone can access — and afford — healthy food is a community benefit we can all stand behind.