Column: Healthy answer to food access depends on state funding

Heather McMann, Executive Director Groundwork Lawrence. Board of Director f Lawrence Partnership. ORG XMIT: nf98z277

Lack of access to healthy foods is a major contributor to diet-related illnesses.

In Lawrence, rates of Type 2 diabetes are 76% higher than they are for the entire state. The city has the state’s highest rate of childhood obesity at 44%.

The Healthy Incentives Program has proven critical to helping address this problem.

The state-funded program allows residents to use benefits through the Supplemental Nutritional Benefits Program (EBT/food stamps) at farmers markets. Residents can receive a monthly dollar-for-dollar match ($40, $60 or $80 depending on family size) on money spent at farmers markets to use anyplace SNAP is accepted.

Those who use the Healthy Incentives program report a decrease in major health issues and a better quality of life.

Residents have told us at Groundwork Lawrence the Healthy Incentives Program is a blessing that has changed their lives completely. We hear this sentiment echoed again and again.

The program is a huge success and an example nationally of how to make local, fresh food available to those on limited food budgets.

It is the No. 1 contributor to the increased popularity of the farmers markets run by Groundwork Lawrence, which have seen sales increase by over 400%, from $83,000 to $345,000, from 2016 through 2018. Groundwork Lawrence has been working to increase access to healthy, local food for 15 years to help improve public health in the greater Lawrence community.

But the Healthy Incentives Program can only remain successful if it is adequately and consistently funded by the state; the program just started up again after a three-month hiatus due to lack of funding.

The fiscal 2020 budget recently passed by the state House of Representatives increases funding for the program from $4 million to $4.5 million, while the Senate’s budget recommends funding it at $6.5 million.

Groundwork Lawrence and the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative are advocating to meet the full need of Massachusetts residents at $8.5 million.

Not only does the Healthy Incentives Program benefit residents, it’s a boon for local farmers.

A huge increase in sales has encouraged farmers to expand their operations, grow more food, and hire more staff.

As a result of the program, $8.3 million more in fresh fruits and vegetables have been sold, translating to increased revenue for more than 200 farms in Massachusetts. And 40 to 60 new jobs were created.

The Healthy Incentives Program stimulates the local economy while providing residents with the healthy food they want and need.

Yet, despite its huge success for residents and farmers, markets cannot remain open year-round due to underfunding by the state.

This situation creates unpredictability and gaps in residents’ access to local, fresh food, making it hard to build trust with consumers and farmers because they don’t know when they will be able to access the benefits of the Healthy Incentives Program.

Groundwork Lawrence and the Massachusetts Food System Collaborative are advocating for the Legislature to include full funding for the program in the fiscal 2020 budget. We’re also advocating for passage of a bill that would codify the program into law, ensuring that residents of the commonwealth can reliably benefit for years to come and that farmers can accurately plan their harvests.

Groundwork Lawrence invites you to come shop at our farmers markets, whether or not you have SNAP or participate in the Healthy Incentives Program.

Farmers markets began June 5 and will run through October on the following schedule: Wednesdays at Lawrence’s Campagnone North Common; Fridays at Nevins Library, 305 Broadway, Methuen; and Saturdays at Lawrence Catholic Academy, 101 Parker St., Lawrence.

All markets operate from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Groundwork Lawrence hopes to continue our market into the winter as well, if Healthy Incentives Program funding is available.

Heather McMann is executive director of Groundwork Lawrence. Hers is one in a series of occasional columns coordinated by the Lawrence Partnership. She is a member of the organization’s executive committee.