Smile Politely

LINK scratch fever

There’s big news this week at Urbana’s Market at the Square. Our market is the recipient of one of the LINK Up Illinois Double Value Grants, which will match LINK card token purchases at the Market. Starting August 13, LINK card users can increase the worth of the money they spend. Essentially, someone who purchases $10 worth of LINK tokens will be given a matching value of another $10. The matching value increases up to $20 per Market day, so that someone who purchases $30 on their LINK card will be given $50 worth of tokens for that day. This is wonderful development that will hopefully diversify the people we see at the market, as well as increase the profitability of farmers who sell there.

LINK cards are given to qualifying Illinois residents as a way to redeem SNAP (food stamp) benefits, as well as cash benefits. Starting in the 2010 Market season, the Market offered a chance to purchase tokens, called Market Scratch, for debit and credit card holders at the city tent at the entrance of the Market. (This is helpful for those of us who spend cash like it is going out of style, and thus do not carry it to protect themselves, their bank accounts, and their marriages.) The tokens can also be purchased with a LINK card, and can be used to buy LINK-eligible foodstuffs at the Market.

Officially, this grant is worth $10,000, which matches the $5,000 worth of LINK transactions the Market honored during the 2010 season. It was sponsored through LINK Up Illinois, a joint venture through the Experimental Station in Chicago, the Illinois Farmer’s Market Network, and the nationwide organization Wholesome Wave. All of these organizations are working collaboratively with communities to nourish their neighborhoods with locally-grown produce and other local food products. They represent funding and organization at the local, state, and national level, and all offer support to Urbana’s market through their innovative programs and resources.

Experimental Station operates as a non-profit collective to integrate different aspects of business and culture to serve its Southside Chicago population. It was started in 2001, built upon a local history of socially responsible community programs. 2008 inaugurated the 61st Street Farmers Market, started with the hopes of mitigating the urban food desert in which it existed. From its inception, this market has accepted LINK card purchases. These have been a growing source of revenue, increasing in 2011 to ten times the amount it saw in its opening season.

The Illinois Farmer’s Market Network is administered through the state’s Department of Agriculture Bureau of Marketing and Promotion. It establishes a state-supported resource to community leaders, farm producers, and citizens for the marketing of agricultural goods. Among their resources are information on seasonality of foods, where to find farmer’s markets, and how to organize and fund markets in local communities.

The Wholesome Wave Foundation, based in Connecticut, helps communities in 26 states affordably bring fresh foods to their citizens. They work primarily with those in rural and urban areas who historically lack access to farm-fresh food. A significant amount of this work is accomplished through their Double Value Coupon Program, which increases the federal monies low-income families can spend at participating markets. This program was expanded this year in part from a $600,000 grant received from Kaiser-Permanente. Wholesome Wave has also introduced a Fruit and Veggie Prescription Program, where coupons from doctors can be exchanged for market goods. This encourages informed decisions about what participants should eat and the benefits of a healthy diet.

This grant is terrific news for our local market and, by extension, the local economy. With a 9.2% unemployment rate in the state, this grant offers fiscal opportunity for farmers and purchasing opportunity to low-income families. Increasing purchasing power for market goers will likewise increase the revenue for farmers and sellers with LINK-approved goods. It is a welcome opportunity for families to stretch their dollar to buy food that is nutritious and locally-produced.

However, the social good goes beyond just improving market sales. While that is an important, direct benefit, this grant provides low-income families a chance to participate in their community in a sociable atmosphere. Too many times, programs directed at the impoverished involve so much red tape and require so much user intelligence they often alienate the very individuals they were intended to assist. Think of the time and energy it takes to even receive LINK or unemployment or disability benefits. Now, with increasing numbers of our community receiving these benefits, we are finally improving how those people can utilize government assistance without simultaneously marginalizing them. And we do marginalize those people deemed too poor for our community, through means as disparate as subsidized housing that relegates the indigent to the far edges of our communities, unjust legal decisions that favor people who can afford costly defense attorneys, or substandard educational systems that keep impecunious individuals in their “place.”

I’m not suggesting that allowing people to spend more money at a local market will cure the caste system our country has unwittingly created. Nor will make every low-income family that takes advantage of the grant happier or healthier. But it will give our community members a chance to participate as equal elements of the citizenry, and that is a step towards seeing one another as worthwhile individuals.

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