By Kana Ruhalter
Boston University News Service
Three days a week, Dave DeWitt sells his organic produce at the Truro, Wellfleet and Provincetown Farmers Market. But some of his customers get more than the fresh greens and tomatoes he has on display.
The savings come from the state’s Healthy Incentives Program (HIP), a dollar-for-dollar electronic reimbursement of fruits and vegetables purchased with money from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). Depending on the household size, participants can be reimbursed up to $80 which goes directly to their EBT card.
“In essence, they’re being rewarded by purchasing local vegetables and fruits at no cost,” said Francie Randolph, founder of the non-profit Sustainable CAPE, a leader of local farm-to-table programs for those struggling with food insecurity.
Randolph said the coalition has seen a 20% increase in the amount of food given out over the past year.
“These kinds of programs make an enormous difference and are growing really rapidly,” she said “That’s exactly the kind of program that I think is so impactful.”
It’s not just the food recipients that feel the benefit – Local farmers are fans of the program too, calling it a “win-win situation.”
“I think it’s an awesome program–Anything to get people to purchase healthier food,” Dewitt said. “And then, obviously, the benefit for the farmers is immense.”
In addition to the fresh greens and tomatoes DeWitt is known for, some customers are provided with a program that rewards their wallets, too.
Randolph said feedback from farmers and locals has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Providing really fresh, delicious, healthy local food supports local farmers and fishermen, and then the funds recirculate in the local economy,” she said.
The non-profit organization Feeding America estimates that more than 18,000 Barnstable County residents experienced food insecurity in 2020, the latest year with available figures.
Outer Cape legislator Sarah Peake has joined with others looking for additional ways to combat food insecurity in the state.
Peake, a member of the Legislature’s Food Caucus, said food insecurity is “front and center” on the group’s agenda.
“[We can fight food insecurity] by supporting programs and organizations like the Family Pantry, Greater Boston Food Bank and the state’s Department of Agriculture,” she said. “And we’ve created legislation to ensure locally grown foods are available in school cafeterias.”
To compensate for inflationary food prices, the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) is raising benefits by an average of about 12% or $25-$30 a month per person.
Beginning this month, benefits will range from $281 a month for a single person to $1,691 for an eight-person household, up from $250 and $1,504, respectively.
Some say, however, that although the benefits have been adjusted for inflation, the original basis of how much low-income families should receive was warped, to begin with.
SNAP benefits are calculated based on the USDA’s Thrifty Food Plan, which allows $6 per day for food, with an additional $2 per day for temporary COVID emergency allotments.
Patricia Baker, a senior policy analyst at the Massachusetts Law Reform Institute and co-author of the Food Stamp/SNAP Advocacy Guide, believes the plan is woefully inadequate.
“Think about yourself trying to support a family of four, think about fresh fruits and vegetables, meat, fish … you know it’s very hard to actually afford a nutritious diet of the SNAP program,” said Baker, adding that because SNAP is federally funded, residents in states with higher living costs, like Massachusetts, are further burdened.
“When you have calculations that are even down over the nation, when in fact costs of living are substantially different, it really undermines the effectiveness of the SNAP program and who it’s really reaching,” she said.
Temporarily raising SNAP benefits and participating in state-level incentive programs makes healthy food accessible to those who might suffer from food insecurity. It also ups revenue for farmers to continue to provide goods for locals.
Randolph also hopes the state will continue to take action to further federal programs, especially during the pandemic.
“One of the silver linings of COVID is that people now understand that there is tremendous food insecurity in our region and that our food supply chains are weak,” she said. “I am a firm believer that you can develop programs very locally that have reverberations far beyond the reach in which you’ve developed them.”
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