When it comes to getting produce variety, we’re pretty lucky in Champaign-Urbana. Asparagus hits early, and then come the strawberries. Sweetcorn season is pretty incredible. We have a nice long summer season full of tomatoes and peppers and eggplants (I seem to have ratatouille on the brain). Although it’s sometimes a bit more of a hike, we’ve got decent access to peaches from the south and cherries from the north. And then fall hits and it’s squash and apples and pumpkins and so much more.
We’re surrounded by farms and farmers’ markets whose prices make it feasible to buy local and take advantage of fresh produce. At least we assume so, but the reality is that in Champaign County, access to produce, whether direct from the local farmers or from the grocery store remains out of reach for tens of thousands of families. The USDA estimates that over 17% of residents in Champaign County face food insecurity: their income is simply not sufficient for each member of the family to get enough food for an active, healthy lifestyle. Our food insecurity rates are even higher than those of Cook County, where we might assume Chicago has a far higher poverty rate, and possibly even less access to local or regional produce because it’s in the city. But in our very county nearly 35,000 residents can’t afford enough healthy food. Initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), commonly known as food stamps, help low-income residents boost their food budgets, but there is still the question of not just financial access, but also physical access to local, healthy foods.
This is one of the main reasons we started the Champaign Farmers’ Market where we did. Downtown Champaign is very close to the local neighborhoods designated as food deserts by the USDA food atlas. Downtown itself, despite all the restaurants, also qualifies essentially as a food desert, where residents live over one mile away from the nearest grocery store or other fresh food outlet. One mile might not sound like much, however for low-income people who are often already taxed for time, and may not have regular access to a car or public transportation, food shopping becomes a real burden. We’re working hard to change this in Champaign, and data already shows that farmers’ markets make a huge difference in providing better access to fresh produce for all.
Illinois has been a particularly noteworthy success story when it comes to boosting SNAP assistance at farmers’ markets. In a 2015 comparison of SNAP-authorized farmers’ markets across the country, Illinois showed remarkable growth in just 6 years, going from 9 authorized markets in 2008 to 119 in 2014, which was solid growth, but pretty average with respect to other states. Even more noteworthy is the exponential growth in SNAP spending at these new markets. In 2008, Illinois was second-to-last in SNAP redemption at farmers’ markets, at a mere $1,595. Only Washington D.C. was lower. However, come 2014, Illinois jumped up to #11 in the country in SNAP redemption: with over $380,000 in SNAP benefits spent at farmers’ markets. Increased support for SNAP programs at farmers’ markets not only meant a massive increase in access to fresh, local produce, but also several hundreds of thousands of dollars going directly into the pockets of Illinois farmers. This is what we want to continue to accomplish for Champaign County, Illinois, and the whole country.This is why our SNAP incentive program is so critical to the market. In Illinois, the SNAP benefits are disbursed through a Link card. At the Champaign Farmers’ Market, Link cardcan swipe their cards at the market for any amount they wish to spend, and we’ll match their purchases up to $20/week. Last year we gave out over $1,000 in matching funds to allow families to double their SNAP spending at the Champaign Farmers’ Market. It was a good start, but there’s so much more we can do. Please help us this season by spreading the word about out SNAP incentives to families and individuals you know who receive SNAP benefits, or agencies and churches who work with low-income residents who can benefit from the program. You can also learn more about our sponsorship opportunities to support the Champaign Farmers’ Market and our food-assistance projects. By becoming a sponsor, you or your employer can help us run the program and reach even more local families and incorporate more cooking demonstrations and other activities to help everyone become more familiar with seasonal Illinois produce. Not only that, your sponsorship is a great way to show your customers your commitment to the health of our community.
Many thanks to Stephanie Fenty for putting together the above graphic on food insecurity in Champaign County!