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More Southland farmers markets in line to take Link cards 

 
Southtown Star
July 29, 2012
By Susan Demar Lafferty

Two Southland farmers markets are among 41 in the state to receive a grant allowing them to accept Illinois Link cards.

Palos Heights and Lockport each will receive a $1,200 grant from the Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project, funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“I’m excited about it. We want to be a full-service market,” said Ann Girzadas, co-manager of the Palos Heights market.

The issue of Link card use has been a “hot topic” at meetings of farmers market managers, she said.

“Let’s get the food to everyone who needs it,” she said. “We want Link dollars to be spent on fresh fruits and vegetables. This is a fabulous program.”

The program will nearly double the number of farmers markets that accept Illinois Link cards. Forty-nine farmers markets and direct-marketing farmers certified by the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program — including one in Chicago Heights — accepted Link cards in 2011, according to the USDA, up from 15 in 2009.

Nine additional grants will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, which could bring the total to 99 — or about one-third of farmers markets statewide — by this year’s end, according to Lt. Gov. Sheila Simon’s office.

“This is a big step,” Simon said. “We are getting more machines so more people can take part.”

Consumers and farmers markets have been demanding this service, she said.

Girzadas said she has not had any requests for the service, but said the Palos Heights weekly Wednesday morning market also serves surrounding communities that don’t have farmers markets.

Merrill Marxman, who for years has managed several markets in the Southland, including Lockport, Alsip and Frankfort, said he never had a request for the service and was unaware that Lockport had sought the grant.

Girzadas said she did not know if the program would begin this year. She has to attend training sessions in August and the Palos Heights market closes Oct. 10. Markets will need to designate one person to handle the Link card sales, she said.

The general consensus among market managers is that this is a good thing, but logistics, such as manpower, will have to be addressed, Girzadas said.

The funding is part of a $4 million nationwide effort by the USDA to increase SNAP sales at farmers markets, which totaled nearly $70,000 in 2011, an increase of more than 522 percent since 2009.

Dotson Farms in Beecher began selling at farmers markets in 1979, and today sells at three SNAP-certified farmers markets in Chicago.

Since accepting Link cards, Josh Dotson said he has seen 5 to 10 percent increases in produce sales at these markets.

“Our farm has been selling at farmers markets for many years, but we gained access to a whole new set of customers when they began accepting Link cards,” Dotson said in a news release issued by Simon’s office. “As a family farm, every new customer makes a difference.”

Markets will receive reimbursements up to $1,211, based on estimated costs for an EBT machine ($895) which the market will keep, a one-time activation fee ($100) and 12 months of wireless access fees ($216), according to Simon’s office.

Grant recipients had to be a fixed-location market with multiple vendors, agree to become certified for food stamp benefits with the USDA and sign a contract with the Illinois Department of Agriculture that requires disclosure of sales data, use of the wireless machine on all market days, and participation in required trainings, before seeking reimbursement from the program.

“With 1 in 7 Illinoisans currently receiving SNAP benefits, increasing the availability of EBT machines at farmers markets makes so much sense. SNAP customers will gain access to the healthiest foods, and potentially millions of SNAP dollars will be redirected toward local agricultural producers, enabling them to invest in and grow their businesses,” said Connie Spreen, executive director of Chicago’s nonprofit Experimental Station.

Simon said Southern Illinois University will study the sales data and evaluate the impact of the program on shoppers, farmers markets and the local economy. The study is expected to be released at the end of 2013 or early 2014.

For more information, or to apply for a grant, visit www.agr.state.il.us.