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61st Street Farmers Market links the South Side to fresh produce

PHOTO courtesy: Allen Sheffield
PHOTO courtesy: Allen Sheffield

Hidden among vast trees and old University of Chicago buildings, a street full of small booths overflowed with colorful produce. There, hands exchanged bright red cherry tomatoes for blue plastic cards. Here at the 61st Street Farmers Market LINK cards, (also known as food stamp cards) can be used for farm fresh produce, a rarity on the city’s south side.

The 61st Street Farmers Market isn’t the first local market to accept food stamps, but it is the closest market to South-Side resident Luberta Cambell, who makes the trip all the way from her home on 43rdStreet.

“I came to get me some fruit and vegetables. They have a lot of good stuff in here,” Campbell said. “You have to come over here––they have different [markets], you know––but we come over here. This is the closest one to us.”

Hyde Park’s 61st Street Farmers Market offers a solution to residents like Campbell, who lives on the South Side where some residents don’t have access to healthy food options or grocery stores. In fact, more than 500,000 Chicago residents live in food deserts, according to the Food Empowerment Project.

The farmers market, which began in 2008, is run by a cultural center called The Experimental Station, located on 61st Street and Dorchester Avenue. The center also houses Blackstone Bicycle Works, which acts as a community bike shop that offers repairs and sells refurbished bikes.

The market’s manager, Kelly Fitzpatrick, stressed the importance of bringing affordable and locally grown food to the south side.

“Connecting with your food is a foundational thing that spreads to everything else,” said Fitzpatrick. “Creating access to fresh healthy food is our mission… especially when the market started, (the community) didn’t have a lot of access to fresh and healthy food, never mind local food.”

To make healthy food more accessible, the organization set up the market to accept LINK cards, which are part of the government’s Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program, also known as SNAP or food stamps. One in six Illinois residents use LINK, according to The Experimental Station.

LINK-Up Illinois was created in 2011 in partnership with Wholesome Wave and the Illinois Farmers Market Association, which strives to make all Illinois farmers markets accessible to those who receive SNAP benefits.

In addition to accepting the card, LINK-Up Illinois will “match LINK purchases up to $25 per cardholder, per market day, as long as funding lasts. This means that LINK cardholders can double the value of their LINK purchases each week at the market,” according to the Experimental Station website.

Fitzpatrick said the program is a win-win for both the residents and farmers by keeping money in the local economy and providing a direct market for “the farmers who are doing the work to grow our food by tying “into each other.” That in turn, she said “affects everything else from there.”

The vendors include Al Mikell with Ellis Family Farms, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, who said he makes a special effort to travel to the market “because it gives the people who don’t farm the opportunity to get fresh vegetables on a daily basis.”

“It’s a known fact that if you eat healthy, you have the tendency to do more healthy things and subsequently change your quality of life,” said Mikell.

The farmers market takes place outside every Saturday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. through October. After November, the market moves indoors into the Experimental Station each week until January and April when it becomes a monthly event.

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