BOSTON -- Vee Lashua, farm manager at Brookside Family Farm in Westminster, said the farm's sales have increased by 35 percent over the past year and her customers frequently speak of their improved health as a result of a program that aims to make fresh produce more accessible to low-income residents.
But the state Department of Transitional Assistance has informed participants that the Healthy Incentives Program will be suspended April 15 due to its popularity.
The program's original funding of $3.8 million was expected to last through April 2020, but has meted out $3.3 million in incentives in its first 10 months.
"The Healthy Incentives Program is a win-win situation, and its suspension is really sad because you're taking away from us as farmers and from the customers that are really the most at-risk for not eating as well as they should," Lashua said. "It helps our economy and it helps me as a farmer to keep doing what I'm doing. And for the customers, it helps them stretch their food budget."
Several area legislators, including Sens. Anne Gobi, D-Spencer, and Dean Tran, R-Fitchburg, are petitioning Beacon Hill colleagues for increased funding to keep the program going.
Under the program, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) participants are automatically enrolled in HIP, and receive refunds when they use their SNAP benefits at a farmers' market and farm stand or buy a community-supported agriculture subscription.
Lashua said Brookside Family Farm plans to reduce the amount of produce it grows by a small percentage in anticipation of HIP's suspension, and will begin selling container plants, which customers can buy through their SNAP benefits, to ensure they can continue to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables.
Ayn Yeagle, executive director of Growing Places, a Leominster-based nonprofit that aims to create equitable access to sustainable and healthy food, said the Fitchburg Farmers Market, which the group coordinates, went from 30 electronic benefit transfer card users in 2016 to 246 in 2017, the year HIP began.
"If the money is not there then I fear we will go backward and sales will be similar to what they were prior to HIP, because people who are food insecure typically don't have enough money to purchase the healthy food that they need," Yeagle said.
The House of Representatives last week passed a supplemental budget that would allocate $2.15 million to keep the program running through July, and the Senate plans to take up the bill on April 26.
Sens. Gobi and Tran are leading a bipartisan effort to restore funding. They recently co-authored a letter to Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Karen Spilka, D-Ashland, requesting $6.2 million be included in the fiscal year 2019 budget -- a significantly larger amount than the $1.35 million Gov. Charlie Baker allocated for the program in his budget.
"The program was much more successful than we anticipated," Gobi said. "The amount the governor put in wasn't much, and based on projections, that amount would only get us through to the end of August. The growing season extends well into the fall, so the $6.2 million makes more sense, and it looks like what we would actually need to get us through to 2020."
Gobi said she visited a farmers' market in Brookfield last year and was struck by the fact that every person who came to buy fresh produce through the program was over the age of 60. One woman she spoke to was purchasing ears of corn that she intended to freeze so they would last throughout the winter months.
In a statement, Tran said, "The Healthy Incentives Program (HIP) is a program that helps both farmers and consumers. It has provided around 36,000 families with fresh, locally grown food, can lead to over a million dollars in public health savings and saw over three million dollars in new revenue across the state. I have provided my support for this program and I hope to see it properly funded in the upcoming supplemental budget and also in FY19 budget to empower more families to make healthy choices."