Food & dining

The Healthy Incentives Program is so popular, its future is now in doubt

Rebecca Martin used some of the money from the Healthy Incentives Program to start her own garden.
Matthew Cavanaugh for The Boston Globe
Rebecca Martin used some of the money from the Healthy Incentives Program to start her own garden.

For 10 years, disabled single mother Rebecca Martin has depended on a combination of federal benefits, smart shopping, and hard choices to feed herself and her children.

Then, last year the state launched the Healthy Incentives Program, an initiative that gives low-income residents extra money to buy fresh produce from local farmers.

“It didn’t break the cycle of running out of food stamps,” Martin said, “but it did break the cycle of freaking out because I couldn’t feed my kids.”

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Martin, a Northampton resident, was not the only one to embrace the program. In its first 10 months, some 35,000 households across Massachusetts took advantage of HIP incentives, according to the state Department of Transitional Assistance, which administers the program. Farmers’ markets, especially those in low-income communities, reported soaring sales.

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However the future of HIP is in question, precisely because it has been so popular. In its first 10 months, the program paid out incentives of $3.3 million, more than eight times what was projected for the first year. This sum was expected to keep the program going through April 2020.

Now, the money is almost gone and the Department of Transitional Assistance has informed participants that the program will be suspended from April 15 into July. An additional $2.15 million is included in the supplemental budget released on Tuesday. If this sum is approved, it will get the program through to July, but funding for next year is still uncertain.

“It’s been a victim of its own success,” said state Representative Dan Donahue of Worcester, one of the legislators leading the push for supplemental funding.

This is how it works: Everyone who receives benefits from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — commonly called SNAP or food stamps — is automatically enrolled in HIP. When participants use their SNAP benefits at a farmstand, farmers’ market, or mobile market, or to buy a community-supported agriculture subscription, HIP matches the money and issues a refund to the account. One-person households can get up to $40 of HIP money each month; families of six or more are eligible for $80.

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“The program was designed to improve health outcomes for some of the Commonwealth’s most vulnerable communities, people who don’t traditionally have access to fresh fruits and vegetables,” said Winton Pitcoff, director of the Massachusetts Food Systems Collaborative, a nonprofit that promotes the development of sustainable food systems in the state. “At the same time it increases sales to Massachusetts farmers. That keeps money in the local economy.”

The program, funded by a grant from the US Department of Agriculture and a state match, began on April 1 last year. The impact has been tremendous, both consumers and farmers reported.

Martin used her HIP benefits to subscribe to a CSA program at a nearby farm, and to buy seedlings that allowed her to grow tomatoes, peas, greens, strawberries, and more at a community garden and in a bed outside her apartment.

There have also been advantages beyond the dietary. Neighbors have been intrigued by Martin’s garden and struck up conversations, allowing Martin to spread the word about the program and form connections in her community.

Her 11-year-old son no longer experiences asthma symptoms and his allergies have improved significantly, she said. And eating healthier foods and working in the garden have alleviated the pain caused by Martin’s severe scoliosis.

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“The health changes in my family have been mind-blowing,” she said.

Because most HIP recipients are also on MassHealth, supporters note that the fresh food initiative could help lower health care costs for the state. The program, however, has not been running long enough to gather enough data to confirm that theory.

Farmers have benefited as well.

At the first two weeks of the Lynn farmers’ market last year, nonprofit farm The Food Project saw sales double as compared to the same period the previous year, said Hazel Keifer, who oversees the organization’s Lynn farming operation.

Demand has been so high that the previously seasonal Lynn market added dates throughout the winter so HIP participants could use their monthly benefit year-round.

Siena Farms of Sudbury saw increased sales at the farmers’ markets it participates in, but the biggest impact was during the winter at the Boston Public Market. There, revenue increased from $1,000 to $2,000 a day because of HIP activity, owner Chris Kurth said.

“At a farmer’s scale, that’s a really significant positive impact,” he said.

There have been less tangible effects as well. HIP’s success has disproven old stereotypes that low-income families do not care about the quality and nutrition of their food, Pitcoff said.

“The reality is that they do,” he said. “They just need help accessing that food.”

If the program is indeed suspended until July — or goes underfunded next year — the ramifications could be significant, supporters said.

Farmers who have expanded or shifted production to accommodate the new demand could take a financial hit.

Program participants could end up with less buying power, but might also lose trust in the system, making it less effective in the future.

“People will be frustrated — ‘Another government program I can’t figure out,’ ” said David Dumaresq, owner of Farmer Dave’s farm in Dracut, which owes about 10 percent of its sales to HIP.

The Legislature will likely take up the supplemental spending bill this week. Next year’s funding is still in question, though.

Supporters are attempting to keep the program running until the end of the fiscal year, which runs through June. Donahue and state Representative Hannah Kane of Shrewsbury are asking that $1.5 million in additional funding be included in the supplemental spending bill currently pending in the Legislature. Nearly 50 representatives have signed on to their request.

For fiscal 2019, Governor Charlie Baker has requested $1.35 million for the program. HIP advocates say that sum is nowhere near enough. Based on this year’s performance, Pitcoff said, the program really needs $6.2 million next year — less than 1 percent of DTA’s expected budget. State Senator Anne Gobi is attempting to rally support in the state Senate for this higher sum.

Supporters say they have not yet encountered anyone who objects to the program. Still, they acknowledge that the budget process involves a lot of priorities competing for a limited sum of money.

“It’s always a challenge,” Kane said. “There are many programs that are tremendously important in the Commonwealth.”

In the meantime, those who have come to depend on the program are waiting and worrying about what happens if more funding doesn’t come through.

“It’s going to cause a crisis all over my community,” Martin said.

Sarah Shemkus can be reached at sarah.shemkus@gmail.com.