As I See It: Healthy Incentives Program worth year-round investment

Originally published on Telegram & Gazette.

As we pass winter’s midpoint here in Worcester, thoughts of local farms and fresh, healthy fruits and vegetables may be far from the average person’s mind. For the customers of the REC Mobile Farmers Markets, fresh healthy produce is available right down the block. On a recent February morning, crowds gather at the Worcester Youth Center, awaiting the arrival of the REC’s big, blue Mobile Market van. Customers chat with each other as they buy locally-grown spinach, lettuce, leeks, carrots, potatoes, onions, garlic, and even ripe hothouse tomatoes. The air is filled with conversation in many languages — English, Spanish, Portuguese, Albanian, and Vietnamese, to name a few. It is the very picture of a vibrant community market.

With support from the Massachusetts Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), these customers feed their families the freshest local food while supporting the local farming economy. Here’s how it works: shoppers who use SNAP (formerly called food stamps) can get $40-$80 worth of fresh fruits and vegetables each month (depending on family size) when they shop at participating farmers’ markets, mobile markets, farm stands, and CSAs (community supported agriculture). The program makes it easier for families to stretch their SNAP dollar and access the healthiest local food while at the same time investing in local family farms. The program started three years ago in Massachusetts, and it’s proven to be a huge success.

Since its inception in 2017, more than 70,000 Massachusetts families have used HIP to purchase more than $13.5 million of fresh locally-grown produce at over 500 locations throughout the state In Worcester alone, more than 5,000 shoppers used HIP last year at participating markets. Farmers and farmers’ market managers alike have seen an explosion in fruit and vegetable sales with the introduction of HIP. The success of this program not only impacts farmers and SNAP consumers but is a boost to the local economy. According to the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative (MFSC), each SNAP dollar spent through HIP results in an additional $1.70 in local economic impact

Due to the costs of care and treatment of chronic health conditions, many Massachusetts residents regularly face the difficult choice between paying for adequate food or medicine because they cannot afford both. This is the case despite increasing evidence that proper nutrition is critical to effectively managing chronic health issues. According to a recent study from Children’s Healthwatch, food insecurity impacts one out of every 10 households in Massachusetts and results in $2.4 billion in avoidable health care costs each year. HIP directly addresses this problem, reducing food insecurity in our community and improving public health.