Food assistance spending soars at farmers marketsBy Timothy Eggert FarmWeek — July 25, 2022
More access to locally grown produce means more food sold.
That was DeKalb Farmers Market manager Virginia Filicetti’s reasoning when she opted to allow people to buy vendors’ fruits and vegetables with federal food assistance. The market received authorization to do so under LINK — Illinois’ version of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP).
“The bulk of our customers at the market are LINK users, which is a huge incentive for the market and our vendors,” Filicetti told FarmWeek in a recent interview. “Vendors get LINK customers and customers get fresh vegetables and fruit from local farmers.”
The every-Thursday market is the only one in DeKalb County that accepts LINK dollars and matches those dollars through LINK Up Illinois. The matching program allows LINK card holders who spend $25 at farmers markets to receive a matching $25 that can be spent on market fruits and vegetables.
The program has become so popular that on the first day of the 2022 season, the market ran out of vouchers for the extra benefits. It’s also popular with vendors.
“It’s an incentive for vendors to come back each year — a big chunk of their revenue from the market comes from LINK spending,” Filicetti said, noting average LINK dollars spent each week at the market totals around $400.
The experience in DeKalb largely aligns with a statewide trend.
A FarmWeek analysis of USDA Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) data found both the number of Illinois direct marketing farmers and farmers markets accepting LINK have soared since the policy was first established nearly 15 years ago. So have the amount of LINK benefits spent on food sold directly by those farmers and at those markets.
In fiscal year 2010 — the first full market season when venders could accept LINK dollars — just over $41,000 in benefits were redeemed at 22 markets across Illinois, accounting for 0.14 percent of the $2.78 million in total benefits redeemed.
By fiscal year 2020, more than $371,000 in benefits were spent at 94 farmers markets across Illinois, representing 1.1 percent of the $3.37 million in total benefits redeemed.
The same progression has played out at the national level.
In FY 2010, around 1.2 percent of the total $64.70 million in U.S. SNAP benefits were redeemed in direct sales at 1,611 different farmers markets.
In FY 2020, about 4.5 percent of the total $74.11 million U.S. SNAP benefits were spent at 4,656 farmers markets.
“Quite frankly, it has huge economic and health benefits to the community,” Janie Maxwell, executive director of the Illinois Farmers Market Association, told FarmWeek.
“(Using LINK at farmers markets) means a regular stream of income to a famer at the market, increased sales and a larger customer base that can utilize the farmers market and bring them more profits,” Maxwell said.
For every $1 of LINK benefits redeemed at a farmers market, about $1.71 is reinvested back into the community hosting the market, according to Maxwell.
“That’s huge,” Maxwell added. “If you’re a LINK user, you could go to a local big-box store, but that’s still supporting a large corporation. Here you’re supporting a local producer and their products.”
How LINK is administered
The rules for using LINK dollars at farmers markets or in a direct sale with a farmer, like at a roadside produce stand, are simple: The money can be used for most any fresh food product, except hot ready-to-go meals.
The policy gets more complicated, however, for the individual vendor or the market itself, which must use electronic benefits transfer (EBT) equipment for LINK transactions.
Maxwell said buying EBT equipment has been a minor barrier preventing some markets or farmers from participating in the program, but grants are available to offset some of the cost.
In DeKalb, market organizers attempted to ease the equipment burden by implementing an EBT token system, wherein LINK customers charge their LINK card in exchange for dollar-equivalent tokens. Customers give vendors the tokens, which are returned to market officials, who reimburse the vendors.
“It really streamlines the process and there’s no confusion between vendors and customers,” Filicetti said.
The larger hurdle is faced by volunteer-ran markets, which often don’t have the staff or the capital to administer the LINK program at their market, Maxwell said.
That was the case at the twice-a-week Macomb Farmers Market, where specialty grower and market manager John Greenwood in 2021 first applied as an individual direct marketing farmer because the larger market didn’t have the resources to implement LINK acceptance for every vendor.
“We’re all volunteer managers and members. You know, we rarely have the time to get everything else done let alone the administrative work to run SNAP marketwide,” Greenwood said.
He estimated it would take 12 hours a week plus other costs to facilitate the program for each vendor.
Markets find more success
Despite other markets’ and individual farmers’ success with LINK customers, Greenwood himself doesn’t plan to renew his own authorization to accept the benefits.
“I thought it would kind of take off for our market,” Greenwood said. “Unfortunately, I did not get the response I was hoping for. It did not work out as planned.”
Greenwood estimated no more than 10 customers with LINK benefits bought his tomatoes, lettuce and other fresh produce during the 2021 market season.
“Another vendor that does take LINK, she sells meat, she has gotten a better response,” Greenwood said. “I don’t know if I’m typical or not, but down here in west-central Illinois, that (low response) is the case.“
Greenwood said he isn’t sure what’s behind the low response — it could be a lack of education or other factors like the COVID-19 pandemic and inflation.
Filicetti said she attributes part of the DeKalb Farmers Market’s success to word of mouth and relationship building between customers and vendors, who “see a lot of the same faces each week.”
“We even have non-LINK customers asking about the program,” Filicetti said. “And a lot of vendors are totally supportive of the program, they communicate that and those who can’t accept LINK are bummed out they can’t accept those dollars.”
Greenwood, who this market season won’t be able to accept LINK benefits, said he still supports the program. And he’s working with a local organization to apply for a grant to cover the market’s costs of implementing it.
“Hopefully, in the future we’ll have the popularity or the funds to be able to fund it across the whole market,” Greenwood said. “It’s like any government program — use it or lose it.”
This story was distributed through a cooperative project between Illinois Farm Bureau and the Illinois Press Association. For more food and farming news, visit FarmWeekNow.com.