CHICAGO – Pledging to connect low-income residents with healthy food options, Lt. Governor Sheila Simon presented a grant today to the Uptown Farmers Market and dedicated a wireless machine that accepts Link, debit and credit cards.
Uptown is one of up to 50 farmers’ markets selected this summer by the state for the Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project. The project reimburses markets up to $1,200 for wireless “card-swiping” machines so residents can purchase healthy, locally grown foods using their Link cards. Link cards are loaded with Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits formerly known as food stamps.
The federally funded project is expected to double the number of farmer’s markets in Illinois that accept Link, making nearly one-third of farmers’ markets statewide accessible to low-income residents. A total of 49 SNAP-certified farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers accepted Link cards in 2011, up from 15 in 2009, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
“One in seven Illinois residents receive food stamp benefits, and nearly all of those dollars are spent on foods imported to Illinois,” said Simon, who chairs the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council. “Increasing access to locally grown foods means stronger local economies in addition to healthier communities. I am happy to recognize and support the food connections being made here at the Uptown Farmers Market and show what is possible when a community is integrated into the operation of a farmers’ market.”
The Uptown Farmers Market is run by Vanguard Weiss Memorial Hospital and is open on Thursdays between June 21 and October 25 from 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. The market, which started accepting Link, debit and credit cards this season, features between eight and 10 vendors throughout the season and hosts a variety of events including free health screenings and cooking demonstrations. Nearly one-third of weekly sales at the market are from Link users, according to market manager Terry Tuohy.
Uptown is in its third year of operation and helps to serve the nearly 10,000 households that receive SNAP benefits in the Uptown Chicago neighborhood, Tuohy said. The rooftop urban farm Weiss maintains sits atop a parking garage that features 20 planter boxes and 15 raised beds containing seasonal fruits and vegetables such as tomatoes, kale and basil.
Space on the rooftop farm is open to community members, and many of the farmers are refugees from across the globe, including the countries of Bhutan and Haiti. Some of the produce grown on the farm is sold at the farmers’ market as well as donated to local food pantries. Community farmers plant their crop using compost collected from food waste at the hospital and irrigate their produce using water collected by rain barrels situated on the roof. The farm also has beehives that attract nearly 150,000 bees to pollinate the crop and produce honey for sale.
“We are honored to be the first farmer’s market in the state to receive this grant money,” said Weiss CEO Jeffrey Steinberg. “It will help us to invest even more into this growing effort that’s benefiting our neighbors and employees in a healthy way.”
The Illinois EBT Wireless Project is jointly administered by the Illinois Department of Agriculture and the Illinois Department of Human Services with assistance from the Lt. Governor’s office. Chicago not-for-profit Experimental Station, the Illinois Farmers Market Association and Southern Illinois University Carbondale also provide support for the program.
“This initiative is an exciting use of technology that will afford farmers the opportunity to expand their customer base while helping Chicagoland families get much needed access to affordable, healthy and fresh produce that is locally-grown,” said DHS Secretary Michelle R.B. Saddler.
Funding for the program comes from USDA and is part of a $4 million nationwide effort to increase SNAP use at farmers’ markets. Before seeking reimbursement, participating markets must be certified to accept SNAP benefits by the USDA Food and Nutrition Services and sign a contract with the Illinois Department of Agriculture that requires disclosure of sales data, use of the wireless machine on all market days, and participation in required trainings that are being held this week across the state.
Applications for the program are still being accepted on a first-come, first-served basis. To apply or learn more about the program, visit www.ltgov.illinois.gov.