The amount of food stamp benefits known as LINK redeemed at Illinois farmers markets and from direct marketing farmers jumped to $41,146 from $11,146, a 269 percent increase between 2009 and 2010, Simon said. She attributed the growth, in part, to wider access. Last year, 35 Illinois farmers markets and direct marketing farmers were certified to accept state-issued LINK debit cards, Simon said citing data collected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Currently, 49 Illinois farmers markets and direct marketing farmers accept LINK cards across 21 counties, including two in Bloomington-Normal.
"We are seeing a promising trend: more farmers markets accepting LINK and more food stamp benefits being used to buy locally produced, fresh food," Simon said. "But with over 300 farmers markets and direct marketing farmers in Illinois, there is room to thrive. I am committed to helping expand LINK usage at farmers markets to improve the health and economy of our state."
Lt. Governor Simon's pledge comes nearly one year after Governor Pat Quinn signed into law the Farmers' Market Technology Improvement Program Act, which created a fund to help Illinois farmers markets conduct outreach to SNAP recipients and purchase the equipment necessary to accept LINK cards. Simon said no revenue was ever dedicated to the fund, a problem she hopes to address as chairperson of the Governor's Rural Affairs Council. Chicago non-profit Experimental Station estimates the average start-up cost of equipping farmers' markets to accept LINK is $2,500. That cost covers, outreach to SNAP recipients, purchase of a wireless EBT machine to accept LINK, and the servicing charges associated with the machines.
"While many farmers markets could afford this investment, there are others that need assistance. Working with other state agencies and both private and public organizations, it is my goal to find grant dollars that will have a huge multiplier effect on our state economy," Simon said.
The Lt. Governor said a more sustainable food system has huge economic potential. Every dollar that is spent on local foods in Illinois has a total economic impact of $1.34, while every dollar spent on imported food returns only 20 cents to Illinois' economy. But despite Illinois agricultural resources, $46 billion of the $48 billion spent annually by Illinois residents on food is imported and travels an average distance of 1,500 miles. Growing, raising, and processing food in Illinois is an opportunity for emerging and existing farmers. The Illinois Farm Bureau's first Local Food Connections Summit brought together a diverse set of stakeholders including various government agencies, nonprofits, and agriculture associations. The summit served as a platform to facilitate the sharing of ideas and resources among these key stakeholders.
"While there are several individuals and organizations working on local food initiatives, it is important for us to synergize in order to minimize duplication, minimize cost, and get more accomplished," said Cynthia Haskins, Manager of Business Development and Compliance for Illinois Farm Bureau. "Working together will mean greater opportunities for market access for farmers across Illinois. The Farm Bureau is working to make sure we build bridges that link our members with stakeholders and we look forward to working with Lt. Governor Simon on making that a reality."