What if vast swaths of Illinois' food deserts could be filled by bringing farmers markets to low-income communities? A new bill circulating in Springfield aims to make that happen.
What if vast swaths of Illinois' food deserts could be filled by bringing farmers markets to low-income communities? It's a question that anti-hunger advocates have pondered for years. But the missing link has always been how to make the locally-sourced goods affordable. "We know how to provide the food," Dennis Ryan of the 61 Street Farmers Market on Chicago's South Side tells us. "That's not enough. You have to make sure that [people] can access it financially."
A partial solution would be to allow food stamp recipients to use their benefits at farmers markets. But in order to do that, each market needs to be equipped with a computer system from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) here in Illinois. A new bill circulating in Springfield aims to make that happen.
The measure (HB 4756), introduced by State Rep. LaShawn Ford (D-Chicago), would create a Farmers' Market Technology Improvement Program under which a fund would be established to help USDA-approved farmers markets and other alternative vendors buy the equipment required to process Electronic Benefit Transfer (EBT) cards. Earlier this month, the measure passed out of committee. And Ford told us last week that moving it through the House and Senate "may be a slam dunk."
Illinoisans don't have to look to far to see why the proposal is so attractive. The innovative 61st Street market -- which we wrote about last fall -- got its own EBT machine online last year. While the equipment cost $1,200, along with a monthly processing fee of up to $100, SNAP-related sales have already grown five-fold. After making $5,000 worth of related sales, the 61st Street market now leads Illinois in its SNAP redemptions. "It's a high-outcome, low-income solution," Ryan tells us. "It's a win-win. It's good for consumers and farmers."
Getting Ford's bill passed is only part of the battle, however. How to pay for the fund is the greater question. The measure wouldn't go into effect until July 2011, which would give the Agriculture and Human Services departments some extra time to scout out a funding source. Ford hopes that "we'll be in the position to get some federal money to get the program going." There may be reason for optimism on that front. "We're starting to see some federal enthusiasm," Ryan says of the USDA's newfound interest in bridging farmers and food stamp recipients. And Michelle Obama has reaffirmed that eliminating food deserts over the next decade is one goal of her husband's administration.