CARBONDALE — In an effort to expand its reach and impact, the group behind the Carbondale Farmers Market Link Up program has brought on board the Neighborhood Co-op to also offer matching dollars for those receiving Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits.
Initially offered to farmers markets throughout the state, the Link Up program was designed to bring healthy, local food options to those on a limited income. Organized by Chicago non-profit Experimental Station, the program operates through donations and grant funding, primarily through the USDA’s Food Insecurity Nutrition Incentive grant.
Cory Chatman is the Link Up Illinois manager for Experimental Station, and he said there were key demographics in mind when it applied for the FINI grant to begin with.
“We wanted to make sure the funding helped two very important segments of our society,” he said, referring to those using SNAP as well as small local farmers. In thinking of ways to take that goal even further, he said Experimental Station arrived at the idea of adjusting their grant proposal to include cooperative grocery stores, which focus on sourcing local products to stock their shelves.
Neighborhood Co-op in Carbondale and Greentop Grocery in Bloomington were among the first approached for the initiative. Chatman said for the cooperative grocery store leg of Link Up, he has been approaching the stores individually and encouraging them to apply for their grant.
This round of funding provides $20,000 to each store from the grant money being distributed by Experimental Station to match dollar for dollar up to $25 a week on all SNAP purchases made for local produce.
In a news release from the Co-op, the store’s staff spoke exuberantly about Link Up.
“It’s humbling to talk with customers, some of whom have cried, about how this Program has changed their lives,” Amy Dion, the store’s marketing manager said in the release.
Francis Murphy, the store’s general manager, said it was a no brainer to participate — it dovetails perfectly with the co-op’s mission.
“We are always looking for ways to make shopping more affordable and inclusive of our entire community, so we were delighted to receive a grant that allows us to offer healthy incentives to customers and help local producers as well,” Murphy said.
The effect is rippling beyond customers though — the store’s produce manager, Chris Neville, said the program has helped farmers sell twice as much to the co-op this year.
Bruce and Maryanne Chrisman backed this up. The two grow and sell a myriad of produce and herbal balms to the co-op, and they said they have seen an uptick in produce since the program was launched earlier this summer. Bruce Chrisman said particularly okra, watermelon, and cherry tomatoes have seen a boost.
They also sell at the farmer’s market in Carbondale on Saturdays, but Maryanne Chrisman said that with the link program they aren’t “selling to the choir.” Instead, they are getting their produce in front of people who might otherwise never be able to have access to local, fresh fruits and veggies. She said years ago she ran workshops and classes for low income families, but the Link Up program has had a greater impact.
“I reached far fewer people than having them go in and buy fresh fruits and vegetables,” she said.