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Miracle on 61st Street: This Chicago Market brings Produce to the People

Chicago’s South Side isn’t famous for its abundant produce. But here at the 61st Street Farmers Market, even in December you’ll find a cornucopia of local apples, pears, leafy greens, sweet potatoes and Brussels sprouts. Still, simply bringing the harvest into the low-income Woodlawn neighborhood isn’t enough. Residents have to be able to afford it.

Call it a problem of price. “Junk food and fast food are a fraction of the cost of fresh fruits and vegetables,” explains market manager Kelly Fitzpatrick. “People have families to feed. Affordability becomes the biggest part of why someone is or isn’t going to come to a farmers market.”

Which is why our work focuses on just that: affordability. In 2009, we joined forces with the nonprofit that runs the market, Chicago-based Experimental Station, to bring our premier program there: doubling the value of SNAP so shoppers can spend it on produce. As neighbors loaded up on the half-price produce, the program’s success soared. It quickly expanded to other farmers markets and in 2011 Wholesome Wave, Experimental Station and the Illinois Farmers Market Association established the LINK Up Illinois program, which doubles the value of SNAP at farmers markets in Illinois. Now Experimental Station is working to secure permanent state funding for these SNAP-matching programs, and has won a federal grant to support expansion.

Through this partnership, the LINK Up program now serves shoppers in 32 markets in the Chicago area. Plus, shoppers aren’t the only ones who reap the benefits. Farmers love the booming business and extra income.

An educational garden nearby furthers the market’s healthy mission. Kelly runs lessons there for neighborhood kids, and says the power of affordability is a game-changer. She explains, “Rather than saying ‘we’re going to teach your kids about food, good luck getting it,’ we say: ‘Here’s a farmers market that will double your money.’”

The fact is, these families want produce—but if they can’t afford it, it’s literally off the table. “If you are counting every dollar,” says Kelly, price is central to the equation. “Which is the why doubling SNAP is so incredibly valuable.”

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This summer at 61st Street, corn and tomatoes were in high demand.

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