BEVERLY — Residents and others from throughout the region have flocked to the monthly winter farmers market here, many to obtain their additional food assistance benefit. But the money backing that program will soon run out.

Through the Healthy Incentives Program, those on food stamps get between $40 and $80, depending on family size, to spend at farmers markets, stands, community supported agriculture programs or mobile markets. Once they spend this monthly amount on locally grown vegetables, they get the same amount back on their food benefit card to spend elsewhere.

The program has benefited not only the people consuming the produce, but the farmers who grow it.

"Thirteen percent of our total sales last year were HIP," said Megan Glennon of Moonlight Farm in Ashby, who was selling the farm's eggs at the Beverly market within the Franco-American Club on Monday. The farm also sells produce during the summer markets. "It made a huge difference for us."

But because of its popularity, the program blew through the $1.3 million originally allocated for it in Massachusetts, according to Ross Condit, marketing and communications manager for The Food Project, which operates the summer and winter markets in Lynn.

The money was supposed to last three years, he said. Instead, it will last less than a year. HIP launched last April and its last month will be March until new funds are made available for the coming fiscal year.

"The struggle right now is to get it back into the budget," said Estelle Rand, director of the Beverly market and Ward 2 city councilor. This is the first year Beverly markets have run throughout the winter, and making HIP available was a main motivator. Beverly's is the only market on the North Shore to be open this time of year.

Gov. Charlie Baker has proposed funding HIP at the current year's amount – $1.3 million – but those who support the program want $6.2 million. The Massachusetts Food System Collaborative is urging people to push for the additional money. The collaborative formed after the state Local Food Action Plan was finished in 2015, according to its website.

From The Food Project's perspective, over 85 percent of customers used a combination of food stamps and HIP benefits during Lynn's winter markets, according to Condit. He said the organization believes it's about the same for summer.

"It's a huge impact on all of our customers, as well as the farms that go to farmers markets," he said.

Farms were also counting on the extra sales from HIP when considering how much produce to grow.

Longer term, the program helps people to eat healthier, which prevents obesity and its health complications, as well as staving off diseases like diabetes, Condit said.

For Glennon, Moonlight Farm is made up of just her, her partner and their two children. The extra sales from HIP really help, she said.

"We're small, so that's a lot for us," she said. While Moonlight only sells eggs at the winter markets, which are not eligible for HIP, people can still use food stamps on them.

Dracut-based Farmer Dave's provided a variety of root vegetables and apples at the Beverly market. The farm not only sells in Beverly, but also Lynn, Lawrence and others.

During the winter markets, most of the sales have been with HIP or food stamps, said Ryan McCarthy, who works for the farm.

Lynn's market is massive, he said, and people will often wait for hours to get their food . There, almost all the sales, if not all, are via food benefit programs.

"It's bonkers, really," McCarthy said.

Some come to Beverly from as far as East Boston just to avoid the crowd.

Both McCarthy and Glennon stressed the importance of fresh produce for those of all income levels.

"We don't want to have an exclusive group of people who can shop from us," Glennon said, acknowledging that the market prices are higher, but that's because of what it takes for local farmers to provide their products and make enough to survive. "We want everybody to be able to shop from us. People shouldn't be excluded from that."

Arianna MacNeill can be reached at 978-338-2527 or at amacneill@salemnews.com. Follow her on Twitter at @SN_AMacNeill. 

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