Simon: Federal grant expands Link access at farmers’ markets

Staff Writer
Aledo Times Record

June 20, 2012. Up to 150 Illinois farmers’ markets could receive free wireless machines that accept debit, credit and Link cards thanks to a grant partnership announced today by Lt. Governor Sheila Simon, a local food advocate who chairs the Governor’s Rural Affairs Council.

The Illinois Electronic Benefits Transfer (EBT) Wireless Project aims to expand access to fresh produce for low-income residents and boost the sale of locally grown food across the state by enabling farmers markets to accept Illinois Link cards, which access federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits, wirelessly at minimal cost for the first time.

The wireless EBT project, funded by a grant of $182,000 from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, will be administered by the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Illinois Department of Agriculture with support from the Lt. Governor’s office. The program will reimburse farmers’ markets up to $1,200 for the purchase of a wireless EBT machine and fees for activation and wireless service. Interested markets must apply prior to July 9 and recipients will be announced mid-July.

“Improving access to local food can improve the health of our citizens, our underserved neighborhoods and the state economy,” Simon said. “As a state we spend more than 95 percent of our food dollars on products grown outside of Illinois. This project will ensure we keep more of those dollars in our local communities at no new cost to state taxpayers.”

To be eligible for the wireless EBT grant, a farmers’ market must obtain certification to accept SNAP benefits through the USDA Food and Nutrition Service before seeking reimbursement. Markets that are already certified and own a wireless EBT machine can seek reimbursement as long as their certification and EBT purchase happened after November 18, 2011. The USDA defines farmers’ market as a multi-stall market where farmers sell agriculture products directly to consumers from a central or fixed location.

            “This partnership is exciting because it is using technology to enable growers to expand their markets and it helps families get access to affordable, healthy, locally grown produce,” said DHS Secretary Michelle R.B. Saddler.

Markets will be provided community kits developed by the Lt. Governor’s office and the Department of Agriculture that will include training and promotional materials. A training webinar will also be held on the afternoon of Wednesday, June 27 that will be recorded and available online.

“I thank the USDA for recognizing the importance of expanding access to nutritious, locally-grown foods and providing this funding,” said Acting Agriculture Director Bob Flider. “Lt. Governor Simon recognizes that this important USDA program will help consumers make food choices that improve not only their health, but also the health of the local farm economy. The program is a win-win all the way around.”

Illinois’ wireless EBT project is part of a $4 million nationwide effort by the USDA to increase SNAP use at farmers’ markets. SNAP sales at Illinois farmers’ markets totaled nearly $70,000 in 2011, an increase of over 522 percent since 2009. The number of farmers’ markets and direct-marketing farmers certified to accept SNAP benefits has increased from 35 in 2009 to 49 in 2011.

“This funding will help Illinois SNAP customers increase their opportunities to access healthy, local foods,” said USDA Food and Nutrition Service Midwest Regional Administrator Ollice Holden. “And evidence suggests they will take advantage of that access. When we couple this approach with strategies like the education, cooking demonstrations, and community support often found at farmers markets, consumption of healthy foods should rise even more.”

Southern Illinois University Carbondale will use monthly sales data and market surveys to study and measure the impact wireless EBT machines and SNAP accessibility have on overall sales at farmers’ markets and will release findings at the end of 2013 or early 2014. Grant recipients who see a benefit can keep the wireless EBT machines, but must absorb the wireless service costs after the project is complete in September 2013 or when their $1,200 grant is expended. Minimal customer service and transaction fees will not be reimbursed by the grant.

To apply for the Illinois EBT Wireless Project or sign up for the webinar training, please click here, or call 217-524-9129.