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Families Are Using SNAP Benefits At Massachuesetts Farmers' Markets

farm produce
US Department of Agriculture

Health officials in southern Berkshire County are concerned young families do not have access to healthy foods. But that could be changing.

Community Health Programs Nutritionist Julia Jarvis says many low- to moderate-income families struggle to pay for healthy food. Jarvis says most don’t know where to start to look for affordable choices.

“It ranges,” Jarvis says. “It can be more expensive, and it can be less expensive. It’s obviously better to shop locally and shop in season. But for families in the area, it’s really hard for them to keep up.”

In Berkshire County, Community Health Programs offers childcare and cooking classes that promote cooking and lifestyle skills. The goal: improving families’ overall health.

Fellow CHP Nutritionist Paloma Suarez says Hispanic and other minority populations are the most affected. Suarez teaches alongside Jarvis, offering assistance in multilingual classes.

“I think that also the lack of transportation within the people that we serve is really challenging or just isolation itself is really difficult,” Suarez says. “Some families don’t even know how to cook with the food they get.”

Pointing to a group of children under 5, Suarez says the classes can counter a cycle of disparity in food choices. The concern is that children who are deprived of healthy food options will wind up raising children of their own who face the same challenges.

Democratic State Representative Smitty Pignatelli says that could all change under a three-year statewide Healthy Incentives Program pilot announced in April.

“It allows people who have SNAP benefits, which are food stamp benefits in Massachusetts, to allow them to swipe their [EBT] card at the farmers market, which was not allowed prior to that,” Pignatelli says.

HIP, as it’s often called, is funded in this year’s state budget at $1.35 million. It also utilizes $3.4 million in grant funding from the USDA.

The program matches up to roughly $80 per month of SNAP recipients’ purchases at farmstands, farmers markets, mobile markets and other Community Supported Agriculture locations.

So far, the program has served more than 30,000 SNAP-reliant households out of a possible 440,000 families, distributing more than $1.5 million in incentives.

“So it helps the farmer’s bottom line by increasing their book of business,” Pignatelli says, “But individuals who are lower income, on food stamp benefits, can actually shop at a farmers market and get quality food. I think having healthier eating habits can lead to a healthier Massachusetts and healthier individuals.”

Berkshire Grown is one of the 40 nonprofits in the state participating in the initiative.

“You definitely need to be trained how to do it, and in the rollout of the program, there were some waiting for equipment moments this summer, and there’s the education of the consumers,” Executive Director Barbara Zheutlin says.

The Downtown Pittsfield Farmers Market got approval in 2015 to accept SNAP benefits.

“There are many programs – and that’s where some of the complications come in,” Zheutlin says. “So, SNAP covers people’s purchases in cheese, meat, and fruits and vegetables. HIP is only doubling the fruits and the vegetables.”

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