IGI fresh food program is a senior favorite

SNAP/HIP collaboration brings fresh veggies and fruit to their doors, but strong demand has limited funding.

From left, Claudia Wales, Dottie Grant, Kat Soni, Vicki Kennedy and Betsy Tierney talk about the importance of the Island Grown Initiative's fresh produce program for seniors.

Island seniors using food assistance programs have been delighted over the past year with an Island Grown Initiative (IGI) program providing them with fresh produce at affordable prices on a weekly basis.

IGI is a 12-year-old Island organization dedicated to helping “create a resilient and equitable food system on Martha’s Vineyard,” according to its mission statement. IGI works with various stakeholders, including schools, local farmers, and retailers to advance locally grown and consumed food.

The novel IGI seniors program, now a year old, allows participants, many of them homebound, to use state Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) monthly benefits in conjunction with a federally granted Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) to shop at the weekly IGI mobile market at their homes. The seniors can purchase affordably priced, fresh-picked fruits and vegetables, and soon, a variety of herbs. SNAP estimates its average monthly stipend is $134 for a single person. HIP offers a $40 monthly stipend that automatically replaces users’ SNAP fund accounts as they are spent up to the $40 ceiling.

But there’s a problem. HIP has run out of funding because of demand. “HIP was suspended on April 15 because they ran out of funds. That’s because it has been wildly successful,” according to IGI program facilitator Kat Soni. She advocates unceasingly for the program, and “my people,” bringing available fresh produce, even throughout the winter, to their participants, mostly from IGI hub Thimble Farms in Vineyard Haven.

“We’re hoping this is a limbo period and they decide to [re-fund] it in the next few months,” Soni said last week at Woodside Village, a retirement community in Oak Bluffs. Legislators support the program, she said. “We didn’t have to call them, they’re completely on board. It’s not that much money; $6.2 million statewide,” she said.

The legislature has been stunningly responsive. A bill to add $2.15 million in supplemental FY 2018 funding was introduced and passed by the state House and Senate within two weeks, and shipped to Gov. Charlie Baker for his expected signature. Soni suggested residents contact legislators to thank them for their quick response and to ask for their continued support.

The legislature is also cooking on a $4 million HIP budget funding package for FY 2019 that is expected to be ready for Baker to sign before the end of the June 30 fiscal year, according to advocacy website Massachusetts Food System Collaborative, which notes that one Boston outdoor market experienced an 800 percent increase last summer after SNAP/HIP kicked in.

In interviews with residents at Woodside Village last week, The Times found that there’s a benefit beyond the money. The seniors are a lively bunch, funny, plainspoken, and they become more animated talking about the difference that the state and local collaboration has made in their lives.

“Education about good eating habits is good, but it’s useless without healthy food to eat. I like that this program supports local agriculture. It’s an awesome program, and I’d like to see it continue. There are kinks because it’s new, but they are ironed out quickly,” resident Betsy Tierney said.

“It makes a difference in how we cook, what we prepare to eat. We can cook healthier,” Dottie Grant said, with confirmation from Julia Blackman, Suzanne Walker, and Brenda Cataloni — women who have spent a lifetime preparing food for their families.

“The freshness of veggies is amazing. The lettuce is good for a week. Food that’s fresh makes me more into eating my salad,” Vicki Kennedy said, adding that she is eager for an expanded menu of herbs this summer. IGI is adding eggs and honey to the summer cornucopia, as well. Woodside resident Julia Blackman lobbied for collard and mustard greens, and Walker and Cataloni weighed in on their favorites.

Claudia Wales sees fresh food as a growth industry. “There is a movement toward vegan and vegetarian lifestyles for a variety of reasons, from political to hormonal,” she said. “I know I’m spending more on vegetables.”

“If this program isn’t encouragement to healthy eating, then what is?” Tierney said.