Organic produce is expensive. Local organic produce? Even pricier.
For those living on a fixed income, farmers markets, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) shares and the like are simply out of the question. A tomato sold at a farmers market, for example, carries a much higher price tag than that of its grocery store equivalent, putting it “back on the shelf” for many lower-income shoppers.
But eating fresh and local shouldn’t be exclusive. Everyone, regardless of income, should be able to access nutritious food and support their local food systems, and in Massachusetts, we are making that happen. Project Bread has teamed up with private and public partners – led by the MA Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) – to launch the state-wide Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), which is making farm-to-table accessible to households receiving SNAP (formerly food stamps).
This June, Massachusetts rolled out HIP, an incentive program for SNAP participants designed to improve affordability and access to locally grown fruits and vegetables. With HIP, someone can spend up to $40 (households of 1-2 people), $60 (households of 3-5) or $80 (household of 6+) of their monthly SNAP benefit on fresh produce at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets and CSA programs statewide and receive 100% of those dollars back on their card to be used for additional SNAP purchases. That’s why they say "it’s HIP to be healthy!"
HIP was soft-launched in April of this year, but really began to gain momentum when SNAP participants received a letter from DTA announcing the program in the mail. Letters hit mailboxes in June, and phones at Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline (1-800-645-8333)—which serves as the statewide information line for SNAP users to learn about HIP and how to access their benefits—were ringing off the hook. In the month of June alone, our Hotline counselors received more than 4,600 phone calls regarding HIP.
"SNAP participants were getting their letters and calling to understand how the HIP program really works. Generally, people were really excited about the program. They hadn’t been going to farmers markets because in many cases it wasn’t an affordable option," says Khara Burns, Project Bread’s FoodSource Hotline Director. "A number of callers mentioned that their doctor had advised them to eat more fruits and vegetables, and with this program they will now be able to afford to do so."
Hutchins Farm, based in Concord, MA, was taken by surprise at the rush of new clientele. As an early adopter of the program, they signed up to be a HIP vendor for their farm stands at the Belmont Farmers Market, the Union Square Farmers Market in Somerville, and the Central Square Farmers Market in Cambridge.
Hutchins saw a small spike in sales at their Cambridge and Somerville stands, where they were one of several vendors accepting HIP. But as the sole HIP vendor for miles around at the Belmont market, their stand there was flooded with new customers and their sales doubled in just one week. People from all different cities and towns began coming to the Belmont market to buy produce with their new HIP benefits.
"It’s been really great to have a bunch of new customers who are so excited to get fresh fruits and vegetables," says Liza Bemis, Marketing and Business Manager of her family-owned Hutchins Farm. "They are so, so excited that we signed up for this program and are so grateful. I’ve had people thank me over and over again for signing up for this."
An exciting outcome of the program is that some of Hutchins’ new customers are actually old customers who used to shop with them decades ago. "They’re customers who lived in the Concord area and eventually they got older, started living on a fixed income, and real estate prices pushed them west," Liza explains. "They’re so excited they get to shop with us again."
Liza points out that organic produce is typically too expensive for many people living on a fixed income. But HIP makes buying organic affordable, and Liza sees how thrilled customers are to be able to buy produce from a farm rather than a supermarket. She recalls a woman and her four-year-old daughter who were buying an organic watermelon. They were absolutely elated, she says, and thanked her profusely.
"It’s been crazy, but it's been good," Liza says. "From our perspective, we definitely have a new population shopping with us, which is awesome and really fun. SNAP participants are so psyched about this." With the program gaining more momentum, a second farm at the Belmont market has recently begun accepting HIP benefits. Liza says this addition will be good for everyone involved – SNAP participants will have more options, Hutchins' long lines will disappear and both farms’ sales will increase.
In just the four months that HIP has been available, SNAP customers have received over $500,000 worth of fresh, local produce at HIP retailers across Massachusetts. Compare that with all SNAP sales at local produce retailers statewide across all 12 months in 2016, which together totaled $470,000. The impact of this program is clear. More than 15,000 SNAP households participated in HIP in July, and more are participating in the program as additional local vendors across the state become authorized to process SNAP and HIP.
So far this year there are 147 new SNAP authorized farmers around the state, with close to 100 more completing the process to become SNAP and HIP vendors.
Good food is a basic right for everyone and HIP is a statewide effort toward food justice for all residents of Massachusetts.