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Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon works to increase use of Link cards in Illinois 


Daily Illini (Urbana-Champaign)
May 1, 2013
By Brittany Gibson

Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon is working to increase fresh food availability throughout Illinois for low-income families through the use of Illinois Link cards.

Link cards are already used in Urbana but have not been introduced in Champaign.

According to her April 17 press release, Simon collaborated with the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council to urge farmers’ markets to apply for a federal grant called the Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project grant, which will give them $1,200 to buy wireless machines that accept debit cards, credit cards and Illinois Link cards.

Link cards are plastic cards which look and act like a debit card but are paid for by the federal government. Anyone in Illinois who has been approved to receive cash assistance or food stamps by the Illinois Department of Human Services will be issued an Illinois Link card. This will enable low-income residents to use their Link cards, which work like food stamps, to purchase fresh, locally-produced food sold at farmers’ markets.

Nicki Engeseth, professor of food science and human nutrition, said she recognized the good intentions behind this fresh food initiative.

“We all know that junk foods are cheap, and fresh produce is not only expensive, but it’s also sometimes difficult to get access to, and it perishes quickly,” she said. “I think we waste a lot, and therefore we don’t benefit from it. Getting it to the areas ... where it will benefit everyone is wonderful.”

Urbana Mayor Laurel Prussing said citizens in Urbana have used these Link cards at Urbana’s Market at the Square, located on East Illinois Street, for the last few years.

“We’re involved in a number of efforts ... (including an effort) for reducing childhood obesity,” she said. “We wanted to make sure that people of all income levels were able to buy food at the markets.”

Thirty-one new markets in Illinois have recently accepted the EBT grants coordinated by a grant partnership between Simon’s office, the DHS and the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Most of these markets will start accepting Link cards this spring.

Champaign Mayor Don Gerard said there aren’t any farmers’ markets in Champaign this year, so Champaign will not be able to accept Link cards this summer. Although there have been farmers’ markets in the past, Link cards have never been used in Champaign before, Gerard said.

“I’m grateful that the farmer’s market (in Urbana) will honor the Link cards, getting a segment of society to be eating healthy and, quite frankly, spending locally,” he said. “When you’re presenting a voucher to a local-area farmer, you’re keeping the money right here in our area.”

The Sustainable Student Farm at the University also aims to help the state and the University in consuming healthy, locally grown food. The group serves as a production farm to supply residence halls with locally grown, low-input sustainable food. The farm also acts as a living laboratory to connect students, community members and the state with regional, small-scale food systems. This sort of farming and Simon’s attempt to increase consumption of food at farmers’ markets both serve to stimulate the local economy.

“I think that a lot of the time, people are forced to buy the cheaper food options, typically the processed foods which have a lot of preservatives, because it’s just the easier option,” said Noel Konken, junior in food science and human nutrition. “I think (the Link cards) will encourage people in need to eat more fresh foods.”

Gerard said those who use food stamps in Champaign have other methods of buying food, but he said he would support Link cards in the future.

“I think that we have a really strong faith-based community (and) community outreach — there’s a lot of organizations that I think will have the opportunity to promote this,” he said. “I certainly will be championing within my connections in terms of taking advantage of this. It’s a winning situation all around. People eat healthier and we’re supporting our local farmers and businesses.”