Recently, my friend Kate Stillman (pictured above) pinged me about how her local meat sales have dropped by 75% at farmer’s markets this past summer. The cause? A new program intended to increase local fruit and vegetable consumption. This summer, the state of Massachusetts introduced a new benefit to those enrolled in SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) a.k.a. “Food Stamps”. In addition to being able to use their SNAP benefits at farmer’s markets, farm stands and CSA farms, a new program called “HIP” (Healthy Incentives Program) allows participants to earn up to $40 (1-2 people), $60 (3-5 people), or $80 (6 or more people) for eligible fruits and vegetables.
What’s Wrong with Promoting More Fruit & Vegetable Consumption? That’s Good, Right?
The program was hugely popular. Customers flooded the markets and were able to use the additional money to purchase fresh fruits and vegetables, seeds, plants for their garden, dried beans, nuts, fresh herbs, applesauce and sauerkraut. What can’t they buy at markets? Some of the excluded items include condiments, olives, sauces, ornamental vegetables and… local meat, poultry, fish and eggs.
The program was so popular that in fact, that regular customers stopped coming. The lines were just too long. And while produce farmers made out great, local meat producers were left in the dust. Not only did they not benefit from the HIP program, but because their regular customers stopped coming, they lost major sales. Kate told me that her sales at the Copley Farmer’s Market dropped by 75%. Kate details her experience in my podcast, listen here.
And while I’m all for giving incentives to folks to increase local food “healthy” food, why limit it to local produce? Is a bag of organic baby lettuce mix, an organic heirloom tomato, or an expensive quart of locally produced raspberries “better” than a pound of grass-fed ground beef? Lettuce, with the nutritional value of a Kleenex, is certainly NOT more nutritious than a steak.
SNAP benefits can be used at a grocery store for “luxury items” like energy drinks, soft drinks, candy, cookies, ice cream and cake. Also considered in the “luxury” category are seafood and steak. There’s been much debate about what foods should be included in SNAP benefits. The government has an official statement about the implications of restricting SNAP benefits to “healthy” foods. Here’s an excerpt from that report:
“There is no strong research-based evidence to support restricting food stamp benefits. Food stamp recipients are no more likely than higher income consumers to choose foods with little nutritional value; thus the basis for singling out low-income food stamp recipients and restricting their food choices is not clear.”
If the goal of this new incentive program is to feed those who are food insecure with “healthy” local food, shouldn’t we consider how to deliver the most nutrient-dense food for the buck? Certainly local eggs, meat, poultry and dairy products do this very efficiently. Why do we continue to see meat as a “luxury” item while local organic raspberries and heirloom tomatoes are not? Why are benefits for meat products limited to industrially produced, CAFO (confined animal feeding operation) meats?
From a nutritional standpoint, red meat is our best source of iron, the number one nutrient deficiency worldwide, especially prevalent in women and young children. It’s also incredibly efficient, calorically speaking, at delivering protein and nutrients compared to plant-based proteins. Saturated fat is no longer a “nutrient of concern” and most people agree that a low-fat diet is no longer the best advice. It’s not 1990 anymore. Environmentally, the New England landscape does a very good job at producing pasture, ideal for ruminants like cattle. Protein farmers are a vital part of the agricultural community and should be celebrated. It’s time to end the halo over produce and the vilification of meat. Both are important for human health. If we want to support local farmers and feed people, local meat, poultry, eggs, dairy and seafood should be part of the HIP benefits.