Legislators protest suspension of state food program

  • SEN. JO COMERFORD, D-Northampton

  • REP. NATALIE BLAIS, D-Sunderland

Staff Writer
Published: 2/10/2020 11:14:48 PM

Legislators who make up the western Massachusetts delegation are among 89 lawmakers to send a letter to the governor and lieutenant governor expressing their “deep disappointment” over the administration’s suspension of the Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) again this year.

The seasonal suspension of the benefits that provide an automatic rebate when shoppers use the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, so they can buy produce from participating local farms, will begin at the end of Sunday, Feb. 23, and continue through Friday, May 15. There has been a suspension every year since the program started in 2017, when funding runs out.

The state Department of Transitional Assistance, which runs the program, abruptly announced the suspension last week.

According to department statistics, about 32% of Franklin County households receive HIP benefits. The agency did not provide the number of people the suspension will affect.

The 89 legislators who signed the letter, including Sen. Jo Comerford, D-Northampton, and Rep. Natalie Blais, D-Sunderland, said they strongly support HIP operating year-round.

“HIP not only benefits our farmers, but also the people who rely on the program for healthy fruits and vegetables,” Blais said. “It is an investment in our future in terms of the economic security of our farms and the health and well-being of our neighbors.”

The legislators made their appeal through the bipartisan Food System Caucus, which launched a year ago and is now the second largest caucus in the state Legislature following the Democratic caucuses in the House and Senate.

The lawmakers wrote that they were disappointed at the way in which the suspension was announced, and regretted “that the Department of Transitional Assistance did not work to alert the Legislature well in advance of the suspension that additional funds were needed to prevent (it).”

Legislators said they share the goal of ensuring HIP does not again experience such a suspension.

“HIP is highly effective at battling rising food insecurity,” said Comerford, co-chair of the Food Systems Caucus. “It’s an economic boost for struggling farmers and it bolsters local economies. The program has significant support from both Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate. The administration should be leaning into the program and expanding it, instead of acting to significantly curtail its impact.”

The caucus also asked to be included in any working group created by the administration to collaboratively structure and sustain HIP moving forward.

According to Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture (CISA) Executive Director Philip Korman, the Healthy Incentives Program has helped 71,000 families purchase $14.1 million of local produce since its inception in 2017. He said it has brought immense benefits to local farmers, families who rely on SNAP and the local economy.

When HIP is running, Korman said, shoppers use SNAP to buy fruits and vegetables from participating farms and receive an instant rebate applied directly to their SNAP accounts. Those funds are available immediately for any future SNAP purchase.

All SNAP recipients in Massachusetts are automatically enrolled in the HIP program, and both programs are administered through the same EBT card. For households of one to two people, the HIP rebate amount is $40 per month; for families of three to five, it is $60 per month; and for more than six people, it is $80 per month.

Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which promotes, monitors and facilitates the implementation of the Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan, said HIP has become increasingly successful each year, and because of that, it grew faster than anticipated. While the state has been supportive, he said the budget has not increased enough to keep it going year-round.

Up until Feb. 23, HIP will be honored at the following farm stands in Franklin County: Atlas Farm in South Deerfield, Clarkdale Fruit Farms in Deerfield, Hager’s Farm Market in Shelburne, Sweet Morning Farm in Leyden and Upinngil Farm in Gill.

The following winter CSAs are also accepting HIP benefits until the suspension: Just Roots, pick-up or delivery at multiple locations in Greenfield (413-325-8969); Natural Roots, pick-up in Conway (413-369-4269); Quabbin Harvest Food Co-op, pick-up in Orange (978-544-6784); and Red Fire Farm, pick-up in Montague (413-467-7645).

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