The Old Town Farmers Market draws people seeking fresh, local produce to Belleville’s downtown every Saturday morning. Food stands line a block of South Charles Street offering fresh meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits, and a steady stream of patrons checks out the options six months of the year.
Now the popular farmers market hopes to attract a new set of customers: SNAP users.
“We’ve always wanted to offer it because we want to offer healthy choices to everybody, not just the people who can afford it or think they can afford it,” said Alicia Slocomb, Belleville Main Street Committee manager.
Slocomb said accepting Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, called LINK in Illinois, had been discussed many times since the market began in 2000. But, she said, it took some doing.
The farmers market first had to go through the federal government to qualify to accept SNAP and then get approval from the State of Illinois. Next, the Belleville market applied for a grant to cover the cost of equipment related to processing LINK benefits.
Slocomb said the months-long process was worth it.
“The location where the market is, is at this point pretty much a food desert,” she said, adding the market can at least meet people’s needs for five months out of the year.
The Belleville farmers market is not the only one to expand services to LINK users this growing season. New locations of F.R.E.S.H. Farmers Market in Cahokia and Fairmont City also accept LINK, as the East St. Louis location has for some time.
Leadership at both markets say reaching LINK users can be a challenge.
“We’re trying to reach people that might not be easy to reach through traditional methods of advertising and promotion,” said Sara McGibany, executive director of Alton Main Street. “It takes a lot of direct outreach.”
The Alton farmers market advertises through social services, housing developments and other places where LINK users might be. McGibany said their outreach works to meet people where they are.
The Land of Goshen Community Market in Edwardsville actually goes on the road to reach LINK users with its Beet Box Mobile Farmers Market.
Tara Pohlman, Goshen Market Foundation executive director, said the mobile market goes all over the Metro East, making stops in Granite City, Madison, Glen Carbon, O’Fallon and Fairmount City.
“It is a truck that we take out to several different communities around us and set up a little farmers market,” she said.
Both Pohlman and McGibany said the LINK programs at their markets are worth keeping because they’ve built regular customers from them.
“My one piece of advice would be to stay the course, because change happens slowly and incrementally,” McGibany said.
She added that Alton’s market has seen more people using LINK since the market joined Link Up Illinois, a program that doubles a LINK user's buying power at farmers markets.
Corey Chatman manages Link Up Illinois for the not-for-profit Experimental Station.
“In essence a shopper that comes to the farmers market that has SNAP benefits can come and earn incentives to purchase more food by spending their SNAP dollars,” he said.
This program matches dollar for dollar up to $25, effectively doubling a LINK user’s money up to $50 each time they go to a participating market.
“Any way you can help stretch those funds, it’s a win for the folks buying the food,” Chatman said. “And also a win for the farmer, because now they get extra revenue streams from people who would not normally come and shop with them.”
All the markets in the Metro East except Belleville’s are part of Link Up Illinois.
Slocomb, who oversees the Old Town Farmers Market, said they want to join the program and apply for other grants in the future – anything that will help get more LINK users to the market.
Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. Follow Eric on Twitter: @EricDSchmid.
Reprinted with permission from news.stlpublicradio.org.