Local farmers markets try to reach needy with Link card
When Todd Nichols heard that some farmers markets were accepting the Link card, he got excited about selling his apples, tomatoes and more to a new customer base. So far though, sales haven't lived up to his expectations.
"I'm disappointed by how much Link we're getting," said Nichols, a second generation owner-operator of his family's farm in Marengo. The family has been active on the farmers market circuit for 20 years, and sells produce at 15 markets, including one in Schaumburg, which is looking at adding Link next year.
The Link card has faced several hurdles. Many suburban markets still don't accept the card. Those that do face technology and logistics challenges. Where the program is working, some involved think the slight usage is because people don't know which markets accept them.
The Link card is the way Illinois residents receive their SNAP benefits, formerly known as food stamps. The blue plastic card looks like an ordinary debit card and works in a similar way, but it can only be used to purchase things that are covered by the program. To be eligible for SNAP benefits a family of four would need to have a gross monthly income under $2,389.
In the last two years, Illinois officials have been working to encourage farmers markets to accept the cards, even providing a free card reader.
"Using their Link cards will allow (people) to put healthy meals on the table, which will have a positive impact on their well being while also supporting local growers," said Januari Smith, communications manager for the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services.
But Nichols estimates only 1 percent of his sales at the participating farmers markets are Link card purchases. And Link card inactivity is found all over suburbia.
In Wheeling, for example, the farmstand market has been accepting the Link card for almost a year. Only one person used her LINK card.
"A lot of people are coming and have the Link card and don't know" they can use it at the market, said Bill Hein, who runs the market with his wife Joan.
The farmers market at the Aurora Transit center, which only began accepting the Link card June 11, tried to get the word out by working with organizations that serve those who are Link card eligible as well as by reaching out to members of the media. The market had 10 Link card customers in its first few weeks. The card is only accepted at the market located at 233 N. Broadway.
In Aurora, people who want to use their Link card go to the tent run by the city and purchase tokens in increments of $1. People use the tokens with the vendors and take their groceries immediately, with the city later redeeming the tokens for vendors.
The way the system works at the Wheeling market is more common, although also more cumbersome. Buyers go to each vendor, order what they want and get receipts. Then then they take their receipts to the stand run by the village, where volunteers total all the receipts and charge them to the Link card. The Link card customer then goes back to the vendors and picks up the purchases.
"We did our first voucher and I was amazed by how simple it was," Hein said.
To encourage Link card acceptance, the state offered free swipe machines through an act signed by Gov. Pat Quinn in July 2010. The problem is the swipe machines the state provides need to be hooked up to phone lines. Most farmers markets are located in large parking lots far from phone jacks, which makes the free equipment unusable.
Hein hopes to someday use the free swipe machine, but he said he is still working on figuring out how to get a phone line to the parking lot where the market takes place because the nearest public building is 100 yards away.
Laura Erickson, who runs the four Chicago Botanic Garden's Green Youth Farm locations, passed up the free machines and opted to pay for wireless machines to avoid the hassle. She said wireless credit card terminals cost $900 to $1,000, but many markets that opt to rent instead of buying.
Erickson said the Link card is used more widely at the three markets she runs in Chicago than at the one she runs in North Chicago. Other farmers markets accepting Link cards Evanston, Oak Park and Woodstock.
People who are Link card eligible often also qualify to use other government assistance programs, she said. For example, in mothers with young children and seniors who are Link card eligible also qualify in many cases for coupons, which can only be used at farmers markets between July and September.
The WIC (women, infants and children) program is designed to make sure that pregnant mothers, infants and young children have access to healthy food. A family of three must have a gross annual income under $32,560. Families in some counties, including DuPage, do not receive these benefits.
And for those who receive them, the coupons won't go far. Women and children get $15 a year in coupons per family or per eligible family member, depending on the county. Last year, only 32 percent of WIC coupons distributed in Lake County were redeemed and Cook County only did slightly better with 42 percent used. Low income seniors get $21 a year. Cathy Wilhelm, WIC senior farm market program assistant coordinator, said seniors are more likely to use their coupons.