A ‘HIP’ way to bolster food security

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A few weeks ago, I went with my friend, Kathleen Chapman — or KC, as she’s called — to the February Winter Farmers’ Market at the Northampton Senior Center.

KC is a Southerner, a smart, funny artist and teacher who moved to Northampton from Mississippi in 2019. Shopping with her is always a good reminder of how blessed western Massachusetts is with relative abundance. Mississippi is a state that consistently ranks as the most food insecure in the nation, with a good many of its residents living miles from the nearest grocery store.

KC always remarks on the plenty of the Pioneer Valley, joking sometimes that someone needs to set up a swap between this area and the South, in which the South will ship dogs to Northampton in exchange for food.

The catch, however, is that food, along with everything else, is so much more expensive here than in Mississippi. KC, who lives in senior housing downtown, uses a combination of SNAP (the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program — what people used to know as food stamps) and Survival Center groceries to help her stretch her fixed budget. At the Farmers’ Market, she also has access to an additional tool in the form of HIP benefits.

HIP is the Healthy Incentives Program, a state- and USDA-funded program that provides monthly incentives to SNAP households when they purchase fresh local vegetables and fruit at farmers markets, mobile markets, farm shares and farm stands. HIP automatically adds back any SNAP money spent at one of the above outlets, up to a certain amount. So, for instance, the SNAP money KC spends on local produce at the Winter Market is immediately added back to her Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card, and, as a household of one, she can spend up to $40 a month on local produce via HIP.

It’s not hard to see how this might benefit the health and well-being of households with limited means. Nutrition research can be fickle and biased, but to my knowledge, there is no study that argues that increasing your daily intake of vegetables will do anything but improve your health outcomes.

And people have been using HIP. Since the program began in 2017, SNAP sales at farm retail outlets increased by a whopping 1,250%; to date, 88,000 families have used their HIP incentives, 45% of whom include seniors, and 30% of whom include children.

The program has been popular enough that the state has periodically had to halt its disbursement of HIP funding because it underestimated the demand for fresh, local produce among its low-income citizens. And besides produce, HIP can also be used to purchase edible plants, so that people who have a bit of growing room can spend their HIP allowance on veggie and herb plant starts, thus increasing their access to fresh produce for an entire season.

If these were the only benefits that accrued to the community via HIP, the program would already be an asset, but its value extends beyond the customers. HIP does a good amount of legwork in the effort to create a more sustainable food system by supporting local farmers as well.

For growers, the cost of organically raising, picking, washing, packaging and distributing produce while stewarding land in a holistic, sustainable way while paying themselves and their workers a living wage is undeniably high.

According to Olivia Pettingill of Wingate Farm, the HIP program has permitted farmers like her to cover their costs while feeding a more economically diverse range of people. 

“HIP has significantly enabled a more equal distribution of high-quality produce to our local community,” she says, “and it’s done this while allowing small farmers to stay in business and even thrive.”

She points out that HIP has more lasting effects as well on the kind of general thinking and public curiosity that lead to greater food security. Local farmers try to grow produce and fruits that do well in our local climate, but that doesn’t always mean growing the vegetables that are the most conventionally recognized.

HIP incentivizes people to try different kinds of veggies that are more locally sustainable, and in doing so, it builds a marketplace that relies less on foods from far-flung places, thus reducing the carbon footprint of shipping.

SNAP Match

The program is not without its issues. As mentioned, there have been periods when it shut down for lack of funding, which is confusing and frustrating for those attempting to use their benefits. This inconsistency also limits farmers’ ability to plan, as well as HIP’s ability to make a sustained difference in people’s eating habits.

Also, if you don’t have any SNAP money left on your EBT card, you can’t access your HIP benefits, even though the two amounts are not dependent on each other. And a further issue is that the benefits are pretty specific: You can buy local vegetables and fruit, but other farm products such as eggs or meat aren’t covered.

In an effort to fill that gap, Grow Food Northampton, which operates the Tuesday Farmers’ Market and the current Winter Farmers’ Market, offers SNAP Match, a system in which Grow Food matches the amount of SNAP money an individual spends at the farmers market. (SNAP Match also doubles the match for the first $10 people spend.) In this way, farmers who sell products other than veggies aren’t left out, and people doing their shopping with SNAP benefits are given a wider selection of choices.

It’s rare, I think, to find elegant solutions where food access is concerned, and even rarer when food access, environmental stewardship and the local economy work together in any kind of synergistic fashion, which is why the combination of HIP and SNAP Match — and their potential to help further a smaller, more sustainable, and more equitable food system — is so ingenious.

The majority of SNAP Match is even funded locally, by Valley Home Improvement, which, over the last four years, has doubled the amount of assistance that Grow Food can provide to customers. Steve Silverman, Valley Home Improvement’s founder, says the company is keen on supporting local business and addressing food insecurity as well — values that are complementary and aligned in SNAP Match.

While SNAP Match will continue as long as Grow Food has the money to support it, the proposed state budget for the next fiscal year cuts HIP funding from this year’s $13 million to $5 million in 2022. Given the many benefits to both local farms and families who would otherwise lack access to sustainable fresh local produce, this seems short-sighted from every angle.

Why not keep the momentum going on a program that has demonstrated great potential to positively affect the health of the commonwealth’s most disadvantaged citizens while also allowing local farm businesses to thrive and grow food in a way increases our food security and decreases our carbon footprint?

After the events of the past year, with scary disruptions to the national supply chain due to COVID, it’s in everyone’s interest to take a closer look at the steps we can take to ensure that the bounty that KC remarked upon isn’t jeopardized — and the continued funding of HIP is one of them.

KC, by the way, came away from the Winter Market with beets and onions, eggs, a small amount of bacon for cooking with some dried lima beans, and a jug of maple syrup, which she uses to sweeten her coffee — a nice balance of items good for both body and spirit.

While on occasion the complexity of figuring out the various different systems available to help her access better quality food has been frustrating, she believes absolutely in SNAP Match and HIP as valuable resources that should be funded, and not just for her own sake.

“The vegetables are so expensive at the store that I’m hesitant to buy them,” she told me, “but here [at the Farmer’s Market], I can get these delicious fresh organic vegetables, and it’s helped me a lot. And the fact that the farmers are being supported is the biggest thrill to me.”

Francie Lin is Grow Food Northampton’s food access coordinator. She can be reached at francie@growfoodnorthampton.org.

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