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Simon: LINK card usage rises at farmers markets 


Bloomington-Normal Pantagraph
July 12, 2011
By Paul Swiech

BLOOMINGTON — Knowing your farmer is good for your checkbook, your waistline and your community.

Eating locally grown foods means that you are eating healthful, tasty vegetables, fruits, meats and dairy products to combat increasing obesity, Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon said Monday.

It also means that you are helping your community’s and your state’s economy.

“Everyone is a winner when we focus on local foods,” Simon said during the first Local Foods Connections Summit at Illinois Farm Bureau headquarters in Bloomington. About 140 representatives of state agencies, agricultural associations and local food councils attended the summit, said Cynthia Haskins, Farm Bureau manager of business development and compliance.

Even though Illinois is a fertile state for agriculture, food consumed by Illinoisans travels an average of 1,500 miles, and $46 billion of the $48 billion spent on food by Illinoisans each year is delivered from out of state, said Simon, chairwoman of the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council. Transportation costs add to food costs.

Every dollar spent on local foods in Illinois has an economic impact of $1.34, she said.

Simon released data showing that more low-income residents are getting fresh food at farmers’ markets, including the two farmers markets in Bloomington-Normal.

People who use a LINK debit card because they are eligible for Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits — formerly called food stamps — spent $41,146 at Illinois farmers markets and buying from direct marketing farmers in 2010, Simon said. In 2009, $11,146 was spent.

“That’s a true indication that people are interested in local foods,” Haskins said.

One reason for the increase is because more farmers’ markets accept state-issued LINK cards. Forty-nine markets in 21 counties accept LINK, compared with 35 markets last year and 15 in 2009, Simon said.

With more than 300 farmers’ markets and direct marketing farmers in Illinois, “there’s room to grow,” she said. Her office is working with a nongovernmental group interesting in paying $2,500 in startup costs to equip each farmers’ market to accept LINK.

As interest in buying locally produced foods continues to sweep the country, Farm Bureau — as a representative for Illinois farmers — decided to host the meeting to bring together various organizations working on getting local foods to consumers, Haskins said.

“It behooves us to work together, especially when budgets are being cut, to minimize duplication and costs,” she said.

Future meetings will include more farmers, Haskins said.

“Local food doesn’t happen without the farmer,” Haskins said.