More Chicago farmers markets accepting food stamps

June 1, 2011

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(Flickr/Natalie Maynor)
(Natalie Moore/WBEZ)
The 61st Street Farmers Market is one of several in Chicago that are now accepting food stamps.

As the summer season begins, Chicago farmers markets are finding new ways to lure shoppers to their produce and fresh products. This year more Chicago farmers markets than ever are accepting food stamps.

That means more low-income households can buy nourishing food. Accessibility is especially important for families who live in food deserts – communities with a dearth of healthy food options.

Farmers market customer: this is delicious – wow

The 61st Street market straddles the Woodlawn and Hyde Park neighborhoods.

Glossy fruits and vegetables, meats and dairy products are laid out on tables. Freshly baked bread and flaky sweets are on display this Saturday morning.

And cheeses.

Customer: can I try the goat Gouda?

The 20 vendors set up here are also able to let their customers use Illinois LINK – a debit-like card used like food stamps. That option is important to Victoria Harris.

HARRIS: Hi, can I try some bread please?

Harris has loaded up on organic sauces and cheeses so far. She’s at the farmers market because they accept her LINK card.

HARRIS: I’m 70 years old and these are my grandchildren. I try to feed them nutritiously. And since they take the LINK of course, they enjoy the food.

She’s guardian of three teenage boys – two are with her today.

HARRIS: I want them to be exposed to organic food.

Grandson Alex is looking for an herb plant.

ALEX: I can incorporate it in eggs and different types of things I cook for breakfast.

People who push for accessibility to fresh food options want to hear these anecdotes.

In 2007, only a few city-approved farmers markets accepted LINK. This year there are around 20.

Connie Spreen is with the Experimental Station, which runs the 61st Street Farmers Market. She’s also helping get LINK machines set up at other markets around Chicago.

SPREEN: The main mission of the market was to try to bring food to the Woodlawn neighborhood and to create a point of access. The Woodlawn neighborhood has been described as a food desert. There is very little access to healthy foods and very few food choices in the neighborhood.

Here’s how it works for LINK cardholders:

They shop and decide what they want. The vendor gives them a sheet with the cost of purchase. After they are finished shopping, they go to an on-site station to get the card swiped. They get a receipt and then pick up their items. The vendors are not inconvenienced and the cardholders have a little more privacy.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture oversees the Illinois LINK program.

Alan Shannon works in the Midwest region—he says Chicago is a leader in connecting food stamps and farmers markets. 

And he says….that fits with the USDA’s goal of using LINK and farmers markets to help get rid of food deserts.

SHANNON: If you excuse the pun, a real hunger for fresh produce in these communities.

Shannon says getting food stamps into more markets doesn’t cost the agency more money. It’s simply giving food stamp recipients a chance to buy organic and fresh.

SHANNON: It’s really a win-win. It’s going to help local agriculture, it’s local economic development and it also helps improve the nutrition of Americans accessing our programs.

Daniel Block is a geography professor at Chicago State University and has done neighborhood mapping around food deserts.

BLOCK: I believe that interest in underserved communities in things like farmers markets is really growing and I get that mainly through sort of the energy I see on the South Side.

Last year $11,000 in LINK money was spent at Chicago farmers markets. This season, nearly that much in food stamps has already been spent – just since the end of April.