PI Original Angela Caputo Thursday September 17th, 2009, 10:00am

Chicago Farmers Market To Double Value Of Food Stamps

Thanks to an innovative foundation, Chicago farmers market organizers have found a way to lessen the main barrier for low-income shoppers: the high price of farm-fresh produce.

In many areas on Chicago's South Side, residents have long complained that it's easier to get their hands on a french fries or a bag of chips than a potato itself. Despite eager consumers, corporate grocers have for decades ignored these corners of the Chicago market, creating the phenomenon known as food deserts. But a small farmers market at the intersection of 61st and Blackstone Avenue is proving that big chains aren't the only hope for bringing locally-grown fruits and vegetables to such areas.  And thanks to an innovative foundation based in Connecticut, the organizers have found a way to lessen the main barrier for low-income shoppers: the high price of farm-fresh produce.

On October 3, the nonprofit Experimental Station (which runs the Saturday market) is launching Illinois' first "double-value coupon" program for federal food-stamp recipients. As they have at several markets nationwide, the Wholesome Wave Foundation is providing an initial grant of $10,000 to provide a dollar-to-dollar match to those shoppers using food stamps, thereby giving them twice the buying power.  Last month, the Washington Post reported on how the subsidies are bringing more and more needy shoppers into a Western Massachusetts market that received a similar grant from the foundation. From that article:

Between August and October of last year, sales using food stamps at the Holyoke market jumped 290 percent, and the number of coupons increased 60 percent. Organizers expect sales to be even higher this summer now that word about the program is out. [...]

"Our goal is to prove to the federal government that matching works," said Michel Nischan, Wholesome Wave's chief executive and the executive chef at Dressing Room restaurant in Westport, Conn. "By implementing these programs, a single dollar of stimulus impacts nutrition, helps farmers, stimulates the economy and provides a direct investment in reducing health-care costs."

"It's a really simple program," the Experimental Station's Dennis Ryan tells us of setting up the system to accept LINK cards (the system that doles out food stamp benefits in Illinois). "It's not always enough just to bring the food. We have to make sure [residents] have the money access it."

As the Post points out, low-income customers aren't the only ones who will reap the benefits of this program. For the Indiana and Illinois farmers who sell at the 61st Street market each Saturday, the double-value coupons will ultimately help move more produce from their plots to kitchen tables, generating more income along the way.

Ryan is hoping that the common-sense program will lead to markets "exploding" across Chicago's low-income communities. "Our plan is that by next season we'll work with other farmer's markets," he said, adding: "Hopefully we'll even get the city [on board]."

Image courtesy of Patricia Evans.

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