SPRINGFIELD – During an address to downtown Springfield business owners this evening, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon will advocate for connecting farmers markets with low-income residents across Illinois.
Simon said she wants more Illinois farmers markets to accept food stamp benefits known as LINK to drive up sales at markets – often held in downtown communities – and to spread the health benefits of locally grown, fresh foods.
“I am happy to report that the increases we have seen in LINK sales at farmers markets in recent years have not lost steam,” said Simon, who serves as ambassador to Illinois Main Street. “This is healthy news all around. More low-income residents are gaining access to fresh, healthy foods. Our farmers are finding new buyers. And we’re keeping our communities vibrant places to visit.”
The amount of LINK benefits redeemed at certified Illinois farmers markets and from direct marketing farmers jumped last year to almost $70,000 from about $41,000, a nearly 69 percent increase between federal fiscal years 2010 and 2011, and a 522 percent increase from 2009 (The federal fiscal year is October 1-September 30).
The increased sales are partly because of increased access, Simon said, as 49 markets and direct marketing farmers in 20 counties are now certified to accept state-issued LINK debit cards and operate electronic benefit transfer systems (EBT), according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. This is up from 35 in 2010 and 15 in 2009.
But there is room for improvement, Simon said, as the farmers market sales represent just a fraction of the over $2 billion in food stamp benefits Illinois receives annually. Simon also noted that despite the state’s vast agricultural resources, less than five percent of the $48 billion Illinois citizens spend annually on food comes from within the state.
Simon will make her remarks at the annual Downtown Springfield, Inc. awards dinner at 7 p.m. at the Hilton Hotel in Springfield. Downtown Springfield, Inc. is a non-profit that works to preserve, promote, and enhance Springfield’s historic central business district, and it oversees the Old Capitol Farmers Market in downtown Springfield. The Old Capitol Farmers Market accepts Women, Infant, and Children (WIC) benefits and is working to add LINK, while the Illinois Products Farmers Market at the Illinois State Fairgrounds accepts WIC and LINK. Among the awards tonight, Julie and Audrey Suchomski, who showcase artisan goods at the Old Capitol market, are being named the Farmers Market Champions of the year.
“As an Illinois Main Street Community that administers one of Illinois’ premiere Farmers Markets, we are pleased to announce that DSI has been actively researching the LINK/EBT pay system for our market for three years,” said Downtown Springfield, Inc. Executive Director Victoria Ringer. “We hope to be able to launch the program with this market season. This will allow us to remain competitive, increase market sales and offer specialty crops to those who otherwise may not have access.”
Simon also cited innovative promotions that attract shoppers, such as the LINK Up Illinois program. LINK Up Illinois was developed by Experimental Station, a Chicago non-profit, and provides grants to farmers markets across Illinois to offer and offset double-value coupons. The coupons allow an individual to double the value of their LINK purchases at farmers markets, up to a limit of $10-25, as determined by each individual market.
The LINK Up Illinois program, launched in 2011, worked with 20 participating markets across the state, including the Illinois Products Farmers Market and Experimental Station’s 61st Street Farmers Market. It provided an extra $43,000 in fresh and healthy food to low-income Illinoisans – at no cost to the buyers – in the 2011 calendar year.
“LINK Up Illinois' double-value coupon program levels the playing field for our low-income neighbors, making it possible to truly gain access to the fresh foods sold at farmers markets by making them affordable,” said Connie Spreen, executive director of Experimental Station. “At the same time, LINK Up Illinois encourages real economic stimulus by keeping federal nutrition benefits in our local communities.”
“As a partner in LINK Up Illinois, the Farmers Market Network will continue to assist and advocate for Farmers Markets in obtaining financial resources to support an EBT system, which is a crucial step toward helping markets learn how to expand fresh food access while improving health outcomes and supporting local agriculture,” said Pat Stieren, the coordinator for the Illinois Farmers Market Network.
Simon, the only constitutional officer from Southern Illinois, is chair of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council (GRAC). The Council re-launched last year on opening day of the Old Capitol Farmers Market and is working to improve access to local foods.