Caitlin Kownacki / Community Wellness: Farmers’ markets support health, vitality – Champaign/Urbana News-Gazette

By CAITLIN KOWNACKI

Farmers’ markets have been growing in popularity over the past three decades. From 1994 to 2006, the USDA saw an increase from 1,755 to 4,385 markets nationwide. Today, there are more than 8,600 markets in the U.S.

For many, farmers’ markets represent a fun, social environment to interact with vendors and other marketgoers. Others see them as a way to connect with local growers and support local business, but many of us don’t often think about the vital role farmers’ markets play in supporting the health of communities. Not only do they link communities, families and individuals to fresh, whole foods that supply important nutrients we need to stay healthy; they also create points of access to healthy foods for families and individuals experiencing food insecurity.

Food insecurity occurs when a person or family does not have reliable access to a sufficient quantity of affordable, nutritious food. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) provides over 45 million low-income Americans with monthly benefits that can be used to offset the cost of food, but the program also supports farmers and their businesses in all 50 states. In 2015 alone, $19.4 million in SNAP benefits were redeemed at farmers markets, a fourfold increase since 2009 (Farmers Market Coalition).

SNAP programs are administered at the state level and so programs are often referred to by their state name. In Illinois, benefits are loaded onto individual Illinois Link Cards.

According to Feeding America, in Champaign County nearly 17 percent of the population (35,000 residents) is food insecure, higher than the rate in the Chicagoland area (15.3 percent). Locally, Urbana’s Market at the Square and the Champaign Farmers’ Market are going the extra mile to accept payment for produce and whole foods in various ways, creating a more inclusive environment for individuals and families relying on vital food safety network programs such as SNAP, the Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) Farmers Market Nutrition Program, and the Senior Farmers Market Nutrition Program. To learn more, visit the Farmers Market Coalition website which gives a great rundown of the programs (farmersmarketcoalition.org/advocacy/policy-priorities/). To find other markets in the state who accept SNAP visit http://www.dhs.state.il.us/page.aspx?item=44172.

Markets that accept SNAP benefits typically use a token system and are sometimes able to offer double- and triple-value nights because of grants aimed at increasing the fresh fruit and vegetable consumption of families. These markets typically have a booth where consumers exchange SNAP dollars for market tokens. The tokens are then used to purchase produce directly from vendors. WIC and Senior Farmers’ Market coupons may also be accepted by vendors. These programs also support local farmers.

Earlier this July, University of Illinois Extension, in cooperation with Sola Gratia Farms, Prosperity Gardens and the Champaign Farmers’ Market, introduced participants in our “Market to MyPlate” family cooking school to shopping at local farmers markets. Traci Barkley of Sola Gratia Farms had this to say, “Over 30 percent of our sales were through either LINK (food stamps) match coupons or WIC vouchers. Since market began in May 2017, over 20 percent of our produce at this market has been purchased with either LINK or WIC vouchers. The Land Connection manages the Champaign Farmers’ Market and has received grant funds to double and even triple (once per month) LINK dollars that are spent on fresh produce via SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) incentive programs. These programs are changing buying and eating habits among low-income shoppers, as well as providing an economic boost to farmers. In fact, at Tuesday’s market, the participants in the UIUC Extension CSA cooking class came to market to learn how to be savvy, budget-minded market shoppers and how to get the best nutrition and value for their food dollars.”

According to Sarah Simiziane, the Champaign Farmers’ Market manager, “This is precisely what food stamps were first conceived for: connecting farmers who had food they couldn’t sell with people who couldn’t afford to buy it. Everyone benefits from this scenario, not just the buyers and the sellers, but our local economy and our community on the whole.”

If you’re new to the farmers’ market scene or aren’t sure if it’s for you, keep in mind that farmers will be excited to see you there!

Did you know that farmers are the perfect people to get recipe ideas from? They typically know their produce very well. Don’t be shy to ask for suggestions on how to prepare a new food. Or, ask them for their favorite way to eat it! Farmers can also give you tips on how to keep the produce fresh and how to store it for later use. Check out this website for more reasons and tips on shopping at the Farmers’ Market: nutrition.gov/farmers-markets.

You can also find healthy recipes on the Extension website at web.extension.illinois.edu/INEP/recipes-new/index.php and can follow us on Facebook at facebook.com/IllinoisNEP for more recipes.

So get out to your local farmers’ market this summer. No matter who you are, or how you’ll pay, you’ll be sure to find healthy, fresh food to nourish you and your family all summer long!

Caitlin Kownacki is an educator for University of Illinois Extension serving Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties. Contact her at 217-353-0740 or caitlink@illinois.edu.

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