63rd Street: Card, Experimental Station Link Low-Income Residents to Nutritious Foods at Farmers Markets

63rd Street IconBy Holly Pennebaker and Maureen Foley
The Red Line Project

Updated: Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011

Chicago military veteran Daniel Doyal first learned from a TV commercial that he could use his LINK card at farmers markets throughout the city.

Doyal said, “At 81 years old, I don’t always have a lot of money. With LINK, its very easy and convenient, and every little bit helps.”

By participating with LINK assistance benefits, farmers markets have opened doors for healthy eating among people with low incomes.

Woodlawn neighborhood residents have been gifted with an oasis of healthy food choices in their usual “food desert” neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side. The not-for-profit Experimental Station partnered with volunteers to create a way for LINK card-holders to buy nutritious, affordable food like fruits and vegetables.

LINK cards are issued to people in Illinois who receive cash-assistance benefits, also known as food stamps. Farmers markets’ stations are now set up to accept LINK cards, which look and scan like a debit card. This year, locally grown produce can be sold to a LINK card-holder just like any other transaction.

Small convenience stores in “food deserts” -- Chicago neighborhoods that lack full-service supermarkets -- stock few, if any, healthy items. Instead, their selection is often limited to candy, chips, juice and soda. Research showed that some stores were unable to provide perishable food because their coolers were broken.

In last year’s pilot program of five markets, LINK sales reached $29,000 and tripled total market sales across Illinois. Chicago events blogger Linda Matlow of Chicago724 wrote that the 2010 pilot program was one of the most successful efforts of its size in the country.

Experimental Station EBT Coordinator Corey Chatman received financial benefits growing up, and is passionate about maximizing access to fresh food.

Chatman said, “After I worked on the LINK program with the city for six months, it made me uniquely qualified to teach other farmers markets throughout the state how to actually implement a program.”

In response, a partnership of Experimental Station., the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services and the Mayor’s Office of Special Events nearly doubled the number of farmers markets accepting LINK cards in 2011 to 13.

61st Street Market Photo by Holly Pennebaker
61st Street Market vendor Maggie Cavelli welcomes
LINK card customers. (Photo by Holly Pennebaker)

The USDA Farmers Market Promotion Program Grant was given to the 61st Street Market last October, and was used to develop the program and add more locations, from which LINK card-holders could shop rather than from food desert convenience stops.

David Blackmon, Chicago Public Schools program coordinator of Agricultural Sciences, Hospitality and Culinary Arts,  was among those at the 61st Street Farmers Market’s opening day on the South Side.

Blackmon said, “Kids don’t know how to eat healthy, that’s why farmers markets are important and having them come down and learn what to do with beets, rutabagas and asparagus.”

According to Blackmon, the key is educating and empowering people of all ages to eat better. Once they see the value in nutritious food, they will buy the food. Blackmon holds healthy eating workshops that teach students in South Side elementary schools about nutrition. Adult cooking classes are also offered.

Chatman said he plans to promote healthy eating and open 50 to 60 more markets before next year. He continues to work with the City of Chicago to make this possible through funds and incentives.

Along with Dennis Ryan, who manages the 61st Street Market, Chatman executed this program to initiate dietary choices among all Chicagoans, regardless of income.

Chatman said, “Our job was to get them hooked on the good food and they would keep coming back, and that’s what happened.”

Chatman said he believes technology was the barrier of LINK transactions, with no electric machines available in the markets’ outdoor setting. In addition, LINK holders now check out with all other customers. Their transaction is processed like any other debit-card sale, making their low-income status discreet.

Funding from the Department of Community Development allowed Electronic Benefit Transfer, an electronic system that allows transfer of government benefits. Each vendor station was equipped with electrical hookups to process LINK card sales.

The Illinois LINK card. (Photo by Holly Pennebaker)
The Wholesome Wave Foundation, a partnership-based program that supports nutrition for food desert communities, chipped in with their Double Value Coupon program. As Ryan explained, the grant doubles the value of LINK card funds for each LINK purchase.

The 61st Street Farmers Market on the South Side opened on May 14 as a mix of people enjoyed their Spring shopping. Although rainy and unseasonably warm, about 20 shoppers sorted through fresh fruits, wholesome vegetables, homemade breads, organic eggs and sweet treats.

Saturday’s shoppers were using a mixture of cash and LINK cards to buy their produce. The most popular buys included asparagus, tomatoes, cheeses, and whole-grain chocolate chip cookies.

Vendor Brian Ellis said, “People stop off to buy some of the produce as far as lettuce, tomatoes, potatoes, carrots, and things that automatically look fresh.”

A group of local farmers at the market said the LINK customers were saying how appreciative they are for the fresh food to be available, that they normally cannot get at their usual “mom-and-pop” grocery. Every customer was said to be very excited about the products they were buying.

Education provided at the market teaches people about health and the importance of nutrition. Demonstrations by Chef Charles Bagnerise show customers how the produce is grown, and how to prepare nutritious meals.

Bagnerise said, “I like to watch my weight as much as my health, it’s just healthy cooking and its good for your body, and I love fresh ingredients.”

Ryan said they ensures that fresh, sustainably grown produce is accessible to everyone on the South Side, regardless of their financial means. The market accepted LINK cards from day one.

Ryan said, “we’re bringing literally the best we could possibly get, the same farmers that are on our street sell to Frontera Grill, Blackbird, The Publican, the best restaurants in the city.”

A marketing and outreach plan helps spread awareness of the 61st Street Market. Ryan said he sees the best results from fliers, word-of-mouth and getting out in the south side communities.

Together, Ryan and Experimental Station are developing innovative means of making healthy food more accessible throughout South Side communities.

According to Chatman, if given a choice, nine times out of ten people will choose the healthier option, if it is within reach.

Ryan said that people have been overwhelmingly receptive to their team’s efforts. People have wanted to learn, participate in the market, become a vendor, and implement similar techniques in other markets.

Ryan said, “We’re here as a resource, and we’re here to help as many people as possible.”

Shopper Doyle also said, “LINK comes in very handy. I bought some wholesome produce and an upside-down pineapple cake and I’m going to enjoy every minute of it.”

A Guide to the 2011 Chicago Farmers Markets

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