Illinois Governor Pat Quinn is trying to get more people to take advantage of program designed to encourage low income people to use public assistance to buy fresh and local produce, but there are challenges for residents of Western Illinois who want to use the program.
The program called “Linked Up” provides coupons to those on Food Stamps to receive two dollars of produce for every dollar they use at a farmer’s market in Illinois.
Though those on food stamps can only use the coupons at markets that accept the electronic card that’s now used for the food stamp system called the Link card.
The Illinois Department of Human Services lists 38 markets across the state that allow people to use these cards. These include Galesburg and Quincy, but not Macomb.
The McDonough County Public Aid Office, which administers Food Stamps, said the easiest way to find out exactly what types of public assistance a market accepts is to actually ask individual vendors.
Mary Jo DeCounter runs Good Hope Gardens with her husband in Good Hope, Illinois just north of Macomb.
She sells at several farmers market including Macomb's, and said depending on the market she can accept multiple forms of public assistance.
“Absolutely we take the WIC coupons that are given to the senior citizens and to the young mothers and infants, that’s here in Macomb. In Galesburg we go to what they call a Link market, and we can take their LINK cards and they have just become a WIC market.”
Just because a market like Galesburg accepts the food stamp card, doesn’t mean it can accept the double value coupons.
The Food Stamp program doesn't not fund the coupon program, it is funded and operated by the non-profit the Experimental Station.
Program manager Corey Chapman said that in the last year they were able to support all the 38 markets in Illinois, but that number dropped to 15 this year.
“Every year we submit grant applications to private foundations for our programing like a lot of other non-profits. They submit stuff, and this year all the funding didn’t come through as we would like,” Chapman said.
He added that several markets that would like to be on program this year just can’t, because there is not enough money but they are working on it.
“Yeah our Executive director Connie Spring, she writes grants so much I think her fingers are nubs at this point,” Chapman said.
It turns out one of those the markets is Galesburg.
Kathy Bennet with the Galesburg Farmer Market said she actually only learned about the “Link Up” coupon program recently after the Governor’s office began advertising it.
That prompted her to call the program’s office, which replied with a disappointing response.
“At this time there will be no new Grants awarded because the program is on hold until more funds can be raised,” she explained.
Bennet said even without “Linked Up” to encourage participation, the Galesburg Farmer’s Market has used it’s own resources to encourage more people to use food stamps.
It put ads in the local paper and each vendor at the market has a sign saying they accept the electronic Food Stamp card.
“You know the first year I was involved there was really little to no use on the Link card. And then last year it really, I mean we had a lot a lot more people coming down to the market, and this year I’ve already seen an increase,” Bennet said.
Chapman with the Experimental Station said they are trying to develop an affiliate program to offer technical assistance to markets that they don’t have the funding to fully admit to the program.
Part of that assistance includes gathering data on how many people use the program at each market. Chapman said that the data is shared with national groups.
He said they use it to affect policy including the farm bill, which the US House may vote on this or next week, which controls funding for the Food Stamp program.