Austin resident Christopher Holmes, 47, was driving down the street last Saturday when he noticed the parking commotion at the corner of Lake Street and Elmwood Avenue in nearby Oak Park.
When he and his elderly mother got out of the car, they may have been lured by the sight of barrels of hand-picked apples and leafy walls of farmstand-fresh vegetables sold by independent farmers like James Johanson, 27, who traveled roughly 100 miles from Baroda, Michigan to Pilgrim Congregational Church's parking lot for the Oak Park Farmers Market.
Holmes and Johanson have something in common: They all stand to benefit from the Shawnash Institute's Double Value Coupon program for LINK cardholders.
The program's premise is simple. Individuals who utilize the state's supplemental food assistance program, which is operated by electronic LINK card transactions (they're similar to debit cards), receive double the value of their purchases up to $20 when they shop at the Oak Park Farmers Market.
And the program's objective, said Shawnash board member John Owens, is also simple — to get more people eating fresh, locally grown food.
"People are becoming more local food-oriented and starting to wean themselves from fast food," Owens said. "There's been a whole generation indoctrinated by Burger King, McDonald's, etc. The Double Value Coupon program enables the whole social strata to move toward a more nutritious diet and all the side [benefits] that come with that."
Warren Bakker, Shawnash's board president, said the organization is pressing hard to reach out to people like Holmes, who noted that he had no idea the market accepted LINK cards until he wandered inside.
"I didn't know about this," Holmes said. "This is my first time here. My mother usually comes to things like this, so I told her about it. She's picked up some greens, peas, watermelon, sweet potatoes — that's what she's gotten so far."
And it's a win-win situation.
"This definitely brings us more customers," said Johanson, whose family was selling fresh apples and apple cider. "We've noticed an uptick in business since we've been taking the coupons, so it's helped us a lot."
Oak Park Farmers Market manager Jessica Rinks said the market has been taking LINK since 2011 and received funding from the Chicago nonprofit Experimental Station to subsidize a double value program that preceded Shawnash. The problem, Owen said, was that the program was so popular, the funds would be exhausted before the market's season ended.
"People would come and they'd be used to receiving double value coupons and we wouldn't have them," Rinks said. "When we don't have the coupons and someone has gone out of their way to travel here, it's bad."
That's when Owens and Bakker decided that Shawnash — a nonprofit incorporated in 2009 with the mandate of strengthening "the balance between the earth and her people," according to the organization's website — should take the lead in plugging that revenue hole.
The nonprofit began raising funds for the double value coupon program by seeking donations from local congregations and hosting fundraising events, such as an annual benefit and bake sales.
"I had thought that this double value coupon program was a state thing, but when we found out it was a private fund, we realized that if local congregations in Oak Park and River Forest knew what a great program it was, the community would fund it," said Owens, who served as assistant manager of Oak Park Farmers Market in 2012 and 2013 — the last year the market ran out of funding for its double value program.
With that problem addressed, the market is now faced with the challenge of attracting LINK cardholders to spend it on. This year, the program was funded to the tune of nearly $21,000 — around $7,500 coming from Shawnash fundraising, nearly $8,000 from Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) funding obtained by the village of Oak Park and nearly $6,100 in surplus revenue from last year.
According to Shawnash data, there are more than 5,000 LINK cardholders who live within close proximity of Oak Park Farmers Market. At the Sept. 19 market, 40 LINK transactions were recorded, with 33 of those cardholders identified as returning customers and five as new customers. The market distributed around $560 in double value coupon revenue. To date, less than $10,000 of the double value program's nearly $21,000 allotment for 2015 has been spent. The market's season ends on the last Saturday in October.
"Our big outreach this year has been to get more people to use these coupons," said Bakker, a longtime member of the Farmers Market Commission. "The demand has gone up every year, but we have plenty of funding, so we want to get more people to know about the program."
And that may take expanding eastward, into low-income neighborhoods like Austin, Owens said.
"We want participation to grow," he said. "We want to promote more and more ties to Austin. Between our funding and the village's CDBG funds, I think Oak Park is going to be fine, so we have some resources to kind of face east a little bit and maybe help markets there. I don't know what the future holds programmatically, but as we become a stronger organization, we'll be interested in larger missions."
For more information on the market, click here.
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