The Healthy Incentives Program: Healthy families, and sustainable farms

Winton Pitcoff, | Director of the MA Food System Collaborative
Member of Coalition to End Hunger’s Policy Team

Launched in 2017, Massachusetts’ Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) is demonstrating that the best efforts toward a sustainable and equitable system are those that connect sectors, in this case food access, agriculture, public health, and the environment. Low-income families are eating better and participating more in the local economy, and local farms are selling more of what they grow and are better able to feed all members of their communities.

The concept of HIP is simple. Families that receive support from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly food stamps) use their electronic benefits transfer (EBT) card to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables from Massachusetts farms at farmers markets, farmstands, mobile markets, and community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs. When they do, they receive an equal amount of money back onto their cards that can be spent on food at any SNAP vendor.

Offering this benefit provides low-income families, many of whom have not had access to fresh, local, healthy foods before because of financial constraints, with better, more nutritious food. HIP has changed people’s behavior by incentivizing the purchase and consumption of healthier foods. The resulting improvements in families’ health yields additional benefits, including a reduction in preventable dietary-related diseases that can exacerbate issues such as challenges with workplace performance or school attendance.

At the same time, HIP has resulted in a tremendous increase in sales for Massachusetts farmers. Thanks to more than $8 million in sales in less than two years, farms are buying more local goods and services, thus contributing more to the local economy, and are better able to stay in business. In turn, that sustainability leads to those farms continuing to steward thousands of acres of farmland in Massachusetts, with environmental benefits that everyone gets to enjoy.

This program is the first of its kind in the nation, so early projections of the funding that would be needed to sustain it proved to be insufficient. Demand outstripped funding by tenfold in the first year, resulting in the program being suspended for several months. Funding for the second year was more generous, but still not enough to keep it operating through the entire year. This inconsistency undermines the ability of the program to meet its goal of changing consumers’ behavior. Farmers also need consistency in knowing that this new group of customers will still be buying their products, so that they can manage their crops accordingly.

The Campaign for HIP Funding has brought together farms, advocacy and trade organizations, and individuals from all sectors (seniors, health care professionals, businesses, and others) to support increased funding for this transformative program by urging the legislature and governor to fund it at a level adequate to meet demand. More information about HIP and the Campaign can be found at https://mafoodsystem.org/projects/HIP/.