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Link Access At Illinois Farmers Markets To Go Wireless 

Progress Illinois
July 3, 2012
By Michael Sandler

A $182,000 federal grant from the United States Department of Agriculture could provide up to 150 Illinois farmers’ markets with free wireless machines that accept debit, credit and Link cards.

The Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project is aiming to expand access to fresh fruits and vegetables for Illinois’ low-income residents. Illinois Lt. Governor Sheila Simon originally announced the plan, and Simon’s spokeswoman Kathryn Phillips told Progress Illinois that farmers markets must apply for the grant by July 9 (go here to apply). Illinois’ wireless EBT project is part of a $4 million nationwide effort by the United States Department of Agriculture to increase Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) use at farmers’ markets.

To be eligible for the EBT grant, Phillips said famers markets must already be accepting SNAP benefits. There are currently 300 farmers markets in Illinois and 50 of them accept Link cards. (Link cards allow food stamp recipients to receive benefits electronically.) Out of 25 farmers’ market owners who took part in an informational webinar last week, Phillips said eight of them have filled out applications.

According to numbers released by Simon, SNAP sales at Illinois farmers markets totaled nearly $70,000 in 2011, an increase of over 522 percent since 2009. The number of farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers certified to accept SNAP benefits has increased from 35 in 2009 to 49 in 2011.

Currently, the Illinois Department of Human Services (DHS) provides EBT machines to farmers markets, but according to Phillips, the machines aren’t wireless. She said a power source is needed to run the machines, and depending on where a farmers market is located, that can be a problem.

“Politicians a lot of times talk about win-win situations,” Phillips said. “It gets a little grating. But this really is a win-win situation. It supports local food producers, and folks who are using Link cards are getting access to food they might not normally have access to.”

State Rep. La Shawn Ford (D-Chicago) said limited access to healthy food is an issue in rural and urban areas alike. Ford said Chicago’s Austin neighborhood, which is home to over 100,000 residents, has only one chain grocery store, Save-A-Lot. Ford said he likes the idea of farmers markets introducing people to fresh fruits and vegetables.

“It’s a great place to go, and it’s a totally different atmosphere than a grocery store,” Ford said. “It’s sort of like a walk in the park.”

According to Phillips, the EBT grant is a one-time deal. The money will cover the cost of the EBT machines, Phillips said, and the owners can keep the machines even after their $1,200 grant is spent. However, she said the grant will not reimburse owners for credit card transaction fees.

To measure the effectiveness of this grant, Phillips said Southern Illinois University will use monthly sales data and market surveys to study the impact wireless EBT machines and SNAP accessibility have on overall sales at farmers’ markets. The findings will be released at the end of 2013 or early 2014.