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home : news : north central illinois   May 24, 2016

6/15/2013 1:39:00 PM
State Program to help LINK users at farm markets not relevant in Ill. Valley

Demetrio “Sal” Salazar (left) of La Salle purchases strawberries earlier this week from Rose Fluech of Tonica at La Salle’s farmers market in Hegeler Park. Gov. Pat Quinn recently promoted a program that would allow LINK card users to get two-for-one purchases at farmers markets, but local farmers markets are generally too small to take LINK cards.NewsTribune photo/Matthew Baker
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Demetrio “Sal” Salazar (left) of La Salle purchases strawberries earlier this week from Rose Fluech of Tonica at La Salle’s farmers market in Hegeler Park. Gov. Pat Quinn recently promoted a program that would allow LINK card users to get two-for-one purchases at farmers markets, but local farmers markets are generally too small to take LINK cards.
NewsTribune photo/Matthew Baker

Matthew Baker
Staff Writer

Earlier this week Gov. Pat Quinn promoted a program to help Illinois’s poorest families maximize their farmers market purchases, but few, if any, Illinois Valley residents will be able to take advantage of it.

The LINK Up Illinois Double Value Coupon Program is designed to help low-income residents increase their nutritious food options, particularly fruits and vegetables. Overseen by the nonprofit organization, Experimental Station, the DVCP provides grant funding to participating farmers markets. Those markets then give customers using LINK cards vouchers matching any purchases up to a set limit, effectively allowing those shoppers to purchase twice as much fresh produce for the same price.

Julie Sloan, manager of the La Salle farmers market, said DVCP “sounds like a great project,” but none of her vendors are able to accept credit or debit cards, let alone LINK cards.

Some large metropolitan farmers markets may accept electronic payments, but cash is still king at local markets.

“We had very few users requesting to use a LINK card,” said Bryon Walters, manager of the Mendota farmers market.

Debb Ladgenski, who oversees Spring Valley’s farmers market, said she first heard of the program when Quinn began promoting it this week.

“It’s definitely worth looking into because we want to be accessible for all incomes,” she said.

Ladgenski, who also is Spring Valley’s economic director, hasn’t had many people asking to use LINK cards at the market, but she said if there’s anyone interested in doing so she would like them to contact her.

Currently, there are only about 20 farmers markets statewide funded through the LINK Up Illinois program — the closest is in Bloomington. The participating markets are predominantly in metropolitan areas.

Corey Chatman, program manager for LINK Up Illinois, said many farmers markets in the state have shown interest in the program, but few have the organizational structure to meet requirements.

Of the more than 325 farmers markets in the state, Chatman said only about 55 are able to accept LINK cards. He explained that the machines required to operate the Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) systems necessary to charge a LINK card can cost $500-$1,200 plus monthly fees, which can be too expensive for small vendors to support.

“That’s why a lot of market managers take it upon themselves to get a machine and then work as a cashier for the farmers,” Chatman said.

At the Mendota market, for example, most of the produce vendors are hobbyists, Walters said. While market organizers could take on the added burden of the LINK system, he said there doesn’t appear to be sufficient demand at this time.

The LINK Up program itself is somewhat limited in size because it is funded through private donations.

“We’re working with limited funds,” Chatman said.

In 2012, LINK Up Illinois helped farmers markets throughout the state serve more than 6,000 families and generate over $227,000 in combined LINK and DVCP purchases, according to a press release from Quinn’s office.

Although unlikely to impact local markets anytime soon, Link UP Illinois offers some notable benefits.

“We want to help underserved communities,” Chatman said.

The program can help put nutritious food into the hands of a community’s low income population. In La Salle County, for example, 10.3 percent of residents met poverty status in 2011 with 21.3 percent considered low-income, according to the most recent annual report from Heartland Alliance. About 5 percent of La Salle County residents fall into the category of extreme poverty, according to the report.

Chatman said the program also supports local economies by increasing the profits of farmers market vendors.

“We also want to help spur the local economy by helping that small business owner,” he said.

A recent study by Wholesome Waves, an organization that operates similar DVCP programs around the country, found that these programs increase both the amount of fresh produce people eat and the number of sales at farmers markets, particularly in areas where people have limited access to quality fresh produce.

Farmers markets have boomed locally and elsewhere in recent years, but this year has seen some markets shrink because of new state regulations.

Illinois passed a cottage food law last year that requires vendors selling food products made in home kitchens to be registered and licensed. For some home cooks, the cost and time required to go through the licensing process isn’t always worth the little bit of extra income earned at farmers markets.

Sloan is expecting the cottage food law to reduce her number of vendors this year, but Walters, who also produces honey, said about five Mendota farmers market vendors went through the licensing process.

Matthew Baker can be reached at (815) 220-6933, or

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