Funding for Healthy Incentives Program dries up

  • A display by Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst at Smith College in 2016. The farm is one of many in the region that participate in the popular Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 17, 2018

NORTHAMPTON — A state program that reimburses food stamp recipients for the cost of fresh, local produce was suspended Sunday night after the unanticipated popularity of the program caused funding to run dry.

The Healthy Incentives Program, or HIP, implemented in April 2017, has now spent over $3.9 million in one year reimbursing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program recipients for the state assistance they spend on fruits and vegetables. Originally, the program was allocated $1.25 million annually for three years.

“The need for additional resources is significant,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative. “At the same time, by targeting those resources to healthy food and local food, it’s made a huge difference for farmers and families.”

According to the Department of Transitional Assistance, HIP exceeded budget expectations by 800 percent this year.

Rep. Stephen Kulik, D-Worthington, vice chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, described the program as “a victim of its own success.”

“The HIP program has been such a win-win program,” Kulik said. “It benefits SNAP recipients in giving them access to healthy nutritious locally produced vegetables and fruits. It’s very beneficial to our local farmers as well, it gives them many business opportunities for increased production and business for economic growth.”

The House Committee on Ways and Means included $2.15 million in additional funding for HIP in a supplemental budget bill passed by the House on April 4. However, the Senate Committee on Ways and Means has yet to vote on the budget that would fund the program until June 30. 

“It’s a major priority of mine. I’ll be pushing for the highest level of funding we have,” Kulilk said.

HIP provides monthly incentives of $40 to $80, depending on family size, to match purchases of local fruits and vegetables dollar-for-dollar at farm stands, farmer’s markets and community supported agriculture programs. In Hampshire County, around 986 households participate in the program, purchasing $104,445 worth of produce from 26 participating farms in the last 12 months.

Jeremy Barker Plotkin, owner of Simple Gifts Farm in Amherst, said he has made about $15,000 from HIP participants choosing to buy his fresh produce. Last July, he acquired his first electronic benefit transfer machine to participate in the program. According to the Food System Collaborative, there was a 65 percent increase in the number of retailers participating in the SNAP program in 2017.

With funding provided by the Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Massachusetts started the HIP program last year, the first of its kind in the country.

“Regrettably, the reason the Department of Transitional Assistance had to take this action is because they are literally out of money,” Kulik said.

In February the state announced HIP was struggling financially, and by April, without the passage of the supplemental budget bill, the suspension seemed imminent, Pitcoff said. Automatic calls went out to SNAP recipients, farmers participating in the program were notified of the changes and communication strategies were discussed with stakeholders.

“It’s going to be a challenging period,” Pitcoff said. “We knew it was coming so there was certainly lots of conversations going on about how to deal with this appropriately.”

Pitcoff’s organization is campaigning to increase HIP spending for fiscal 2019, and lobbying for the Senate to pass the supplemental budget bill to fund the program through June 30.

The House Committee on Ways and Means last Wednesday released a draft budget proposal for fiscal 2019 which included $3.5 million for HIP. While this is a significant increase from last year’s funding, it is still not enough to meet demand, Pitcoff said.

To fill the gap, representatives Hannah Kane, R-Worcester, and Daniel Donahue, D-Worcester, have introduced an amendment to increase 2019 HIP funding to $6.2 million, with 35 other representatives signing in support.

Debate over the proposed budget will begin on April 23, with passage scheduled for the beginning of May. The governor needs to sign a new budget by June 30.  

The best case scenario, Pitcoff said, it that the Senate looks at the supplemental budget bill this week, makes no changes to the House version, and passes it quickly. However, this is unlikely as the bill covers tens of millions of dollars in various state programs.

Other funding options for HIP include seeking private funding and waiting to see if more federal grant money will become available, according to Pitcoff.

“What we have done has helped educate representatives and senators about the value of this program and the importance of this program for so many people,” Pitcoff said.

Sarah Robertson can be reached at srobertson@gazettenet.com.