Healthy Incentives Program benefits families and farmers

A new statewide program promotes healthy eating habits for low-income families while boosting the local economy.

A new program will provide SNAP beneficiaries with as much as $80 a month to buy fresh produce. —MV Times file photo

A new benefit program that helps low-income families eat healthier food while supporting local farmers has launched statewide, and kicks off on the Vineyard with the opening of the West Tisbury Farmers Market on June 10.

The Healthy Incentives Program is an additional benefit opportunity for people on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly known as food stamps, which provides assistance with purchasing food for people with little or no income.

The new program provides anywhere from $40 to $80 of additional benefits each month, depending on family size, for SNAP beneficiaries who buy fresh produce from participating farmers markets, community-supported agriculture (CSA) programs, mobile farmers markets, or farm stands.

“It’s a very effective food equity program that can help low-income people in Massachusetts eat healthier, fresher, and more locally grown food while boosting the income of our local farmers,” Noli Taylor, community food education director at Island Grown Initiative, told The Times on Monday. “It’s a win-win program.”

SNAP beneficiaries are automatically enrolled in the new program, and the only way to access the money is to use it, according to Ms. Taylor. People must use their electronic benefit transfer (EBT) cards, similar to debit cards, to access their benefits. Whatever they spend, within the limit assigned to their household, will be fully credited back to their account.

The program was first piloted in Hampden County in 2011 and 2012, and was so successful that the U.S. Department of Agriculture decided to expand it statewide for three years, which began April 1.
On the Vineyard, the program is accepted at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown and at Thimble Farm in Vineyard Haven. At the West Tisbury Farmer’s Market, people can use the benefit at Morning Glory Farm and Slip Away Farm.

And although there are no CSAs on-Island that participate in the program currently, there will be a mobile farmers market beginning July 15 that plans to accept the benefit.

Esther Laiacona, the social services counselor for Dukes County and SNAP outreach coordinator, said the program increases access to nutritious food, one of the biggest challenges of being on food assistance programs.

“We want to not only support our local farmers but encourage people to look at local farmers as valuable resources to their health,” Ms. Laiacona said in a conversation with The Times on Monday.

A common perception is that eating healthy or organically can be unaffordable, but the new program allows people to buy healthy food at a reasonable price, according to Ms. Laiacona. People’s response to the new incentive has been both positive and receptive, she said. “This gives people hope.”

Another misconception is that SNAP benefits are only for people who are unemployed or disabled, Ms. Laiacona said. She hopes the program motivates more people to apply for SNAP, because although a lot of working households qualify, they don’t apply.

“We want people to realize that SNAP is a program not just for one type of household; it’s a program for people who need it,” Ms. Laiacona said.

For questions, call Esther Laiacona, the Dukes County social services counselor, at 508-696-3844, or Island Grown Initiative at 508-687-9062.