Allows Lower-Income Residents Access to Higher Quality Food

By Dominique Goyette-Connerty, Correspondent

As millions of Americans struggle with food insecurity, an issue which has only been heightened by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Worcester Regional Food Hub (WRFH) is making sure more lower-income Central Massachusetts residents have access to high quality, local food.

The WRFH has been granted the ability to now accept Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, formerly known as food stamps.

The largest federal nutrition assistance program in the country, SNAP provides benefits to eligible low-income individuals and families through an Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) card which acts like a debit card and can be used to purchase certain foods at authorized retail stores. After applying back in May, the WRFH was accepted in September to be one of those authorized locations.

A partner of the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce and supported by the Health Foundation of Central Massachusetts, the WRFH aims to increase local food access and consumption, support local food entrepreneurs, and collectively build healthy communities.

In line with that mission, Food Hub Director Shon Rainford says this new ability to accept SNAP only furthers their efforts to promote healthy eating by providing people of all incomes access to fresh products.

“By being able to accept SNAP we can directly reach the population of Worcester who really can use this healthy, local, nutritious food and use their SNAP benefits in order to obtain it,” said Mr. Rainford.

Residents receiving SNAP benefits can now use their government-funded EBT cards to purchase these local products at the WRFH’s weekly food box pickup on Wednesdays, or at their new Saturday food market which takes place once every month.

Mr. Rainford says the weekly curbside pickup option has really “taken off” since its inception in March as a contactless way to buy fresh products without having to confront the pandemic crowds at the grocery store. Due to the program’s popularity and high demand, he says it will continue, “and this [SNAP acceptance] will allow a whole other market segment to take advantage of the local food we’re bringing to Worcester.”

The ability to accept SNAP benefits isn’t just a positive thing for needy families in the community. It’s also good news for the local farms and food producers who work with the Food Hub. Simply put, with more residents able to purchase the products they sell through the WRFH, these Central Massachusetts food makers have the potential to sell more, thereby increasing their revenue.

With more farms in Worcester County than any other county in the state, the Chamber’s director of government affairs and public policy Alex Guardiola recognizes the caliber of this economic value. “As the fiscal sponsor* of the Worcester Regional Food Hub, we really feel this is part of their bigger mission in allowing for access to quality food,” he says, “but it also has other, trickle-down effects for our small businesses which really got hit hard by the pandemic,” adding that it helps those food providers better sell their inventory before it goes to waste, all while keeping the dollars spent on food needs in the local economy.

Calling it “an ideal economic development tool,” Mr. Rainford says having this system in place is “the best of all worlds as far as being able to support our local farmers and food producers while getting that food to populations that need a hand up right now.”

It goes without saying that need has only been intensified by the coronavirus pandemic which has left millions unemployed in the U.S., and many food insecure. According to the Massachusetts Department of Transitional Assistance, at the time of writing, more than 59,900 residents in Worcester County alone are currently receiving SNAP benefits.

Moreover, Worcester Public Schools students can also now access food from the WRFH via the Pandemic-EBT (P-EBT) cards they’re receiving, issued to supplement the food needs of children who may typically rely on physically being in school to get lunches and other meals. This gives students and families the opportunity to utilize those funds on local, healthier foods made available by the WRFH, as opposed to other processed products.

While the Food Hub has already consistently been working for food justice for all and economic development for regional agriculture, this opportunity to accept SNAP only doubles down on those endeavors. At the end of the day, Mr. Guardiola says, “There’s always going to be a need for good, quality food and this is just another tool in the toolbox for us to get people access to it.”

As of April 1, 2020, the Worcester Regional Chamber of Commerce is the fiscal sponsor of the Worcester Regional Food Hub. The Worcester Area Business Education Foundation (WABEF), the 501(c)(3) foundation under the Chamber, provides management, financial, administrative, and human resources support to the WRFH. The Chamber ensures compliance of the relevant laws and regulations of the program, and
exercises full legal and managerial control of the WRFH.