FITCHBURG — A new healthy-food reimbursement incentive that will be offered through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program this spring was met positively by the representatives of local nonprofits who attended an informational meeting at Fitchburg Public Library on Wednesday.
Through the new Healthy Incentives Program, any time a SNAP recipient purchases local fruits and vegetables at farmers markets, farm stands, mobile markets or community-supported agriculture programs, they will receive a matched credit on their EBT card equal to what they spend on produce.
The equal reimbursed amount can them be used at any other store for any future SNAP eligible purchase.
The new program, which is being coordinated through the Worcester County Food Bank and the state’s Department of Transitional Assistance, has been seeking public input over the last few months, before the new initiative is launched in April.
“Today went pretty great, people are excited about the program,” said Liz Sheehan-Castro, director of advocacy for the Worcester County Food Bank. “Every month I’ve been getting new and different people to come in and share their expertise and input.”
Local DTA partners, like the Worcester County Food Bank, are holding meetings in order to field suggestions for how the program should be implemented in their area and hear concerns for what obstacles might be faced in their communities.
“I think cooking classes would be huge,” said Elizabeth Chin, a HealthAlliance Hospital dietitian who attended Wednesday’s meeting in Fitchburg. “It’s one thing for people to buy these fruits and vegetables, but I would guess a lot of them don’t know what to do with them or only know how to prepare them in one certain way.”
Another suggestion that came out of Wednesday’s meeting was to implement a color-coding system for the kinds of produce for sale.
“I like the suggestion of color coding as far as processing food, storing food, what is able to be frozen and what isn’t. Having that system in place at the different points of sale, I think, would be very helpful,” said Brian Calnan, an area administrator for the Catholic Charities.
“I suggested that we should really focus on the kids, because they will spread the message to their parents,” said Brenda Payton, a representative of the Guild of St. Agnes Early Education Care of Worcester.
People who attended the meeting also discussed challenges the new program might face locally, including the likelihood that SNAP recipients would be able to find transportation to the kinds of markets that would be participating in the Healthy Incentives Programs.
There was also discussion on people not being able to understand the language in which the program is being explained to them.
“We have to make sure this is delivered in the right language, because we can have the best program, but if that person doesn’t understand it, it won’t be successful,” said Gina Plata-Nino, a staff attorney with the Central West Justice Center.
The new program will last until April 2020, and is being funded through a $3.4 million grant from the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive Grant program.
The program does provide a monthly reimbursement cap. Households with one to two members are capped at $40, three to five are capped at $60, and six or more at $80.
Though it will bring in more customers to local farms, and possibly require them to produce more crops, local farm owners like Virginia Lashua of Brookside Family Farm in Westminster are getting involved in an effort to promote healthier diets.
“It does help our business, but I’m not out to take advantage of anyone,” Lashua said. “Everybody should be able to eat and eat well and afford that food.”
Area farms participating in the program:
FITCHBURG: The Fitchburg Farmer’s Market
LEOMINSTER: The Leominster Farmer’s Market
LUNENBURG: Lanni Orchards
WESTMINSTER: Brookside Family Farm
ATHOL: The Athol Farmer’s Market, The Farm School
BOLTON: Nicewicz Family Farm
CONCORD: Barretts Mill Farm, Hutchins Farm
GROTON: Autumn Hills Orchard
HUBBARDSTON: Lady Bug Farm Produce
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