The EBT Card: Don’t Leave Home Without It! PART III: Government Pays You Extra $$$ to Shop at Farmer’s Markets

FROM OUR PRINTED OCT. EDITION

by Ted Tripp

Sr. Political Reporter

Last month the Boston Broadside showed how Governor Charlie Baker’s Department of Transitional Assistance (DTA) “Card to Culture Program” granted EBT card holders or “clients” free or at nominal cost access to over 140 museums and other cultural institutions. These included the Museum of Fine Arts, the Museum of Science and the Boston Children’s Museum, as well as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, New England Aquarium, Old Sturbridge Village and the Stone and Franklin Park Zoos.

The EBT cards (EBT stands for Electronic Benefits Transfer) are used primarily to issue funds for food stamp (SNAP – Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) and welfare (TANF – Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) recipients. The DTA says that 1 out of every 8 residents of the state either has an EBT card or is dependent on funds from a card.

EBT cards, of course, are accepted at virtually every supermarket and grocery store in the state, and when you shop you are likely to see someone pay for their groceries using one of these debit cards.

However, many don’t know that the EBT cards (for food stamps) are also accepted at 181 farmers’ markets statewide, 96 food stands, 75 mobile markets and 110 community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share programs.

Now, we are all for encouraging people to eat fresh vegetables and fruits. We hear all the time from our doctors and on the news that we don’t eat enough of these good foods to keep us healthy. And we all learned about the food pyramid in grade school, so most of us know this is a healthy lifestyle we should all strive to improve upon.

But the produce and fruits at farmers markets generally cost significantly more than at Market Basket or Stop & Shop. That’s because the local farmer has higher overhead than some of the large commercial farms that supply the chain stores. However, many people are willing to pay the higher cost because the products are fresher or are produced without insecticides or they know the local farmer. This is fine as we live in a marvelous world of choices.

But is this a good choice for an EBT card holder or her family on limited income? Wouldn’t she be able to buy MORE fresh vegetables and fruits for her family if she shopped at Market Basket or one of the many chain stores? The vegetables or fruits may not have been picked the same day as at a farmers’ market, but they are still fresh and nutritious. It would seem to be a no brainer for a family trying to stretch limited resources while maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

Enter the government to solve the problem – or to find a problem to solve. It’s called the “food desert problem,” which is loosely defined as where low-income people, generally in inner cities, don’t have access to fresh vegetables and fruits. The theory goes that they only shop within several blocks of their home and there are no supermarkets or grocery stores with the healthy kinds of food available to the more affluent who can travel.

A lot of the government involvement in recent years has been encouraged by the 420 page, December 2015 “Massachusetts Local Food Action Plan” (http://tinyurl.com/y9ol6j7l), produced for the Massachusetts Food Policy Council. Who knew we had a Mass. Food Policy Council? And once a 420 page action plan has been prepared, you know that government has to take some action to justify the plan.

This brings us to something called the HIP (Healthy Incentives Plan), launched in April 2017, to bring healthier foods to EBT card clients and potentially alleviate the food desert problem in the cities. A noble goal if farmers are willing to bring their produce into the cities to sell and at the same time offer quality food to inner-city residents.

But, as stated, this food costs more and thus is not so attractive to the EBT card family watching its pennies. So the government solution, as typical, is to subsidize it.

The Massachusetts DTA automatically enrolls every SNAP EBT card client into the HIP program. This allows them to shop at farmers’ markets, food stands, mobile markets and community supported agriculture (CSA) farm share programs and pays them, DOLLAR FOR DOLLAR, for every vegetable or fruit they buy from these places. Note that this is in addition to their regular EBT card benefits.

The limits per card are:

1-2 family members  $40/month

3-5 family members  $60/month

6+ family members   $80/month

Currently, there are 168 farmers’ markets enrolled in the state’s HIP program, 88 farm stands, 72 mobile markets, and 109 CSA farm share programs. These are almost the same numbers that accept SNAP EBT cards. Note on the nearby map and at http://tinyurl.com/yapnxve4 that many if not most are NOT located at inner city locations. Several are on the Cape and Islands; others are in small towns in western Massachusetts.

So, again, remind me, what was the original goal of this program?

HIP is funded, according to government sources, by Massachusetts taxpayers, a $3.4 million multi-year grant from the National Institute of Food and Agriculture, and private sources.

A lobbying group called the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative (created to implement the Food Action Plan) has been pushing for more state funds for the HIP budget line item. Governor Baker had requested $1.35 million for HIP in the FY2019 budget. The House Ways and Means Committee version of the budget requested $3.5 million.

But more is never enough. State Representative Hannah Kane (R-Shrewsbury) decided even that amount was not sufficient. She filed an amendment to the budget last spring to increase the amount to $6.2 million. Her amendment was supported by a whole slew of other representatives, mostly Democrats who love spending other people’s money (OPM). You can view the supporters here: http://tinyurl.com/y8dhprb6. Fortunately, the Senate Ways and Means Committee version of the budget recommended only $3 million for the HIP program, so even though Kane’s amendment passed the House, the budget conference committee decided on a lower, compromise number of $4 million for HIP (budget line item 4400-1004). It’s still far higher than the $1.35 million the governor requested.

And what’s going to happen when the federal grant runs out next year?

The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative reports, that from April 2017 through January 2018, with HIP:

  • 36,110 families earned HIP incentives
  • 63,630 individuals increased fruit/vegetable intake by one serving/day
  • SNAP sales at farm retailers increased by nearly 600% from 2016 to 2017, thanks to HIP

[No surprise here, since the government is paying for free products.]

  • Each dollar spent results in an additional $1.12 in local economic impact, as farmers contribute to the local economy

This latter multiplier effect is from the Keynesian school of economics and should be taken with a grain of salt. Much government spending actually shows a negative multiplier effect, which means we would have all been better off if the tax money had not been spent and remained in the taxpayers’ pockets.

For more on the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative claims, see  http://tinyurl.com/ybgxwzbj.

Keep in mind that programs like HIP grow exponentially year after year once they get started and have a lobbying group that stays in contact with legislators to assure that the funding never slows down.

Taxpayers beware.  ♦

 

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