Food stamp recipients can get more fresh food at farmers markets thanks to summer coupon expansion

Maura Lally served customers at the Lehman’s Orchard booth at the Daley Plaza Farmers Market on Oct. 2. She said she sees customers use Link bucks fairly often. “It’s a wonderful option,” she said. “It’s great because it provides access to fruit and vegetables in sustainable ways.”
Maura Lally served customers at the Lehman’s Orchard booth at the Daley Plaza Farmers Market on Oct. 2. She said she sees customers use Link bucks fairly often. “It’s a wonderful option,” she said. “It’s great because it provides access to fruit and vegetables in sustainable ways.”

By Alexandria Johnson

This summer, the number of Chicago farmers markets offering bonus dollars for Link card (food stamp) users increased significantly. The expansion was popular with both vendors and customers holding Link cards.

Now, as the farmers market season winds down, organizers are looking for ways to increase funding to reach more families.

“In this economy and market, and with the price of quality food, this is a great program for those on a budget,” said Keith Chatman, an on-site manager from the Experimental Station, a non-profit organization that hosts the Link Up Illinois program.

The double-value coupon program increased to 26 markets from 15 this summer. The program has provided matching funds to Link card users since 2008.

City of Chicago farmers markets match purchases up to $10, while some independent markets, like the 61st Street Farmers Market, provide up to $25 in Link bucks. The Link bucks can be used as cash to make additional purchases at the markets.

“It is a very important, very effective means for people to afford food at farmers markets,” said Connie Spreen, executive director of the Experimental Station.

Some vendors say the program should be less complicated for them and their customers. Farmers markets handle Link purchases in one of two ways, either the receipt or token system.

All City of Chicago markets use the receipt system where customers pick out their desired purchases, then visit a separate booth to pay with their Link card. Upon getting a receipt and one Link buck for every dollar spent, they can return to the vendor to get their selected items and purchase more with their coupons.

With the token system, Link cardholders can buy tokens to use at the booths. Again, Link users are given Link bucks that match the number of tokens they purchase.

Steve Leckider, owner of Lehman’s Orchard in Michigan, has hosted a booth in Daley Plaza for 11 years. He suggested making the use of Link bucks easier by looking for better ways to track coupons and streamline payments.

“It would be nice if they could bump it up to $5 increments,” Leckider said. “I think that would make it more efficient.”

Leckider also suggests making the vendors responsible for handling the incentives by letting users pay with their Link cards directly at the booths.

Currently, vendors redeem the Link bucks by visiting the on-site manager who compiles the certificates and prepares a check for the vendors, which they usually receive within a week.

Link cardholders can use their dollars to buy a variety of Link-approved foods at the markets, such as bread, jams and produce. Spreen said the program might change slightly if the Experimental Station decides to apply for more U.S. Department of Agriculture funding for Link Up Illinois.

The USDA offers nutrition incentives of at least $100 million, but Spreen said the request for proposals appear to only apply to fresh fruits and vegetables. In order to align with these requirements, she said coupon purchases might be restricted to just fresh produce in the future.

The coupon program is considered to be of particular importance in the city’s food deserts, where affordable, healthy foods are difficult to come by in mostly low-income areas.

“There’s a real problem of access. You create a situation where there are only corner markets, liquor stores or bodegas that carry food,” said Danielle Nierenberg, president of Food Tank: The Food Think Tank. “This is a huge step in the right direction so that people … have access to nutrient-rich foods.”

Some of the city’s markets are in lower income areas, providing greater access to healthy food in these neighborhoods.

“It really demonstrates to the community that the market is there for the whole community, and they actually care about the whole community,” Spreen said.